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Commentary: Right to work?

There’s no doubt that the Michigan labor movement badly blundered by spending millions in its failed effort to get a constitutional amendment protecting collective bargaining on the ballot this year. The amendment went down to a stunning defeat.

Worse, as could have been predicted, the labor movement’s enemies in the legislature are now calling for the enactment of a so-called right to work law, which would outlaw the union shop.

Currently, if a union represents workers at a factory, plant or other enterprise, the workers either have to join the union, or at least pay union dues, as a condition of employment.

That would be illegal if Michigan enacted a right to work law, as 23 other states have done. Unions could still exist, but membership would be strictly voluntary, and they would be greatly weakened as a force for collective bargaining for the workers.

In fact, union leaders believe with some justice that this would mean the end of the labor movement, and they will fight to the death to prevent that from happening. (Even without right to work, unions have been losing ground nationally and in Michigan for decades.)

Governor Rick Snyder doesn’t want the legislature to pass right-to-work laws. He fears that would be unnecessarily divisive, might have a nasty backlash, and says right-to-work laws are not needed in order for him to accomplish what needs to be done.

Senate Majority Leader Randy Richardville agrees with him. But they are considerably less radical than many of their fellow Republicans in the legislature. And some of those, like Senator Jack Brandenburg of Macomb County, are pushing for lawmakers to pass right to work, right away, during a lame duck session.

While Republicans will still control both houses of the legislature next year, they did lose five seats in the house, and doing anything radical might be a little bit harder.

There is little doubt that the legislature can pass such a bill if that’s what they want to do, though even one of right to work’s biggest boosters, Senator Patrick Colbeck of Canton, says it would be probably be too complicated to pull off in a lame duck session.

What nobody really knows is if the governor would sign a right to work bill if one lands on his desk -- though most people think the answer would be a reluctant yes. I don’t know for sure, but I do know this:

Passing a right to work law could end up being a long-term disaster for the Republicans. It could give Democrats the needed rallying cry to punish them in the coming midterm elections.

The fact that voters didn’t want to stick collective bargaining in the constitution doesn’t mean that they are solidly anti-union. The collective bargaining amendment vote was closer than the other constitutional amendments. There’s some indication that many confused voters just blindly voted against them all.

The chances are that many of the same voters who are against unions having special constitutional rights would also be opposed to having the rights they now have taken away from them.

The governor has a lot he wants and needs to get done quickly, from finding a replacement for the emergency manager law to his favorite cause, personal, meaning business, property tax reform.

The last thing he needs is for a legislative jihad against Michigan’s unions to get in the way.             

Jack Lessenberry is Michigan Radio’s political analyst. Views expressed in the essays by Lessenberry are his own and do not necessarily reflect those of Michigan Radio, its management or the station licensee, The University of Michigan.