(Editor’s note: This is an edited version of a commentary that originally appeared in Forbes on Nov. 5, 2012.)
Facing a sea of angry taxpayers and a wave of reforming governors, government unions are becoming desperate.
In Michigan this year, organized labor is going far beyond supporting pro-labor politicians; they want to write themselves special privileges in the state’s constitution.
A proposed Constitutional Amendment, Proposal 2 on the November ballot would give government unions the ability to effectively veto laws passed by elected representatives. And if the unions get their way there, they’ll bring their white-out and markers to state constitutions around the country.
How did the Wolverine state get here?
In recent years, total government spending has surged to a peacetime high of 39 percent of GDP. Why? State and local governments pay out more than $1 trillion in compensation annually.
According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, private employees receive an average of $28.20 in compensation for each hour they work. Meanwhile government workers at the state and local level average $41.10 for the same time. Today, twice as many Americans work in government as in manufacturing, the exact reverse of the workforce in 1960. American taxpayers aren’t getting better government for their money, government workers are just getting more from American taxpayers.
Governors across the country, Democrat and Republican alike, realize this is untenable and have implemented modest reforms on public sector workers, asking them to contribute what average taxpayers do for health care benefits, or making it easier to fire the incompetent or criminal. Union leaders raged, but the public stood by governors like Scott Walker in Wisconsin who put taxpayers first.
It was a clarifying moment in American politics. The country found out just how much workers value these government unions. The answer: Not much. When Wisconsin stopped automatically deducting membership dues from public employees and gave them the option to refrain from paying the union, a stunning number of workers chose to keep their money. In that state, AFSCME lost more than half of its membership in a single year, a strong rebuke from the workers they claimed to be protecting.
Under Gov. Rick Snyder, Michigan passed its own sensible reforms. Snyder asked that public sector workers shoulder 20 percent of the cost of their own health insurance premiums, a little less than the average private sector worker. He also signed a teacher tenure bill including “last in, first out” reform which prevented new, well-performing teachers from being the first to be fired simply because they lacked seniority. Overall, labor reforms that would be overruled by Prop 2-reforms passed by both Gov. Snyder and his predecessors-are projected to save Michigan $1.6 billion annually.
In response to these reforms and those of their neighbors in Wisconsin, government unions in Michigan have proposed this audacious constitutional amendment that would wipe out not just those reforms, but radically change the relationship of government employees and the taxpayers that employee them.
Prop 2 says, “No existing or future law of the state or its political subdivisions shall abridge, impair or limit” unions’ ability to “negotiate in good faith regarding wages, hours, and other terms and conditions of employment…” In other words, government unions will no longer be governed by elected officials, the taxpayers, or even the laws of the state; those would all be subordinated to a collective bargaining agreement.
Michigan Attorney General Bill Schuette says 170 laws and 18 parts to the state constitution may be overruled in whole or in part by Prop 2. If elected officials need to expand criminal background checks on teachers, they can’t pass a law. The state would have to negotiate for that in a heated labor dispute. The same goes for nearly every aspect of a government labor contract: hours, benefits, and working conditions.
The unions have made Michigan their Gettysburg. They know if they win here they can use that momentum to bring similar measures to other states. However, after states like Wisconsin and the new right to work state of Indiana were successful in putting taxpayers and workers above the special interests, a union loss on Prop 2 could further embolden reformers around the country.
And bold reforms on labor policy are just what our country needs right now.
F. Vincent Vernuccio is director of labor policy at the Mackinac Center for Public Policy, a research and educational institute headquartered in Midland, Mich. Permission to reprint in whole or in part is hereby granted, provided that the author and the Center are properly cited.