By Peter Luke/Bridge Magazine correspondent
Why is a conservative Republican Legislature enacting a pro-business agenda that breaks the mold by embracing Right to Work laws?
Because the GOP has the votes in the House and Senate to put it on Gov. Rick Snyder’s desk for his signature. Control all three legs of the stool and you can craft law on your terms, if so willing. Said Rep. Harold Haugh, D-Roseville, in a Tweet last Thursday from the House chambers in a locked-down Capitol: “Why are we doing this today? The best answer I can come up with because one party can.”
Well, yes. Yes it can.
Powerful Republican interests in Michigan understand that. The Democratic ones who have been bleeding power for three decades, not so much. You make your own luck, but Republicans have been greatly aided by an opposition party that has worked hard to put itself at a strategic disadvantage when you consider all the effort squandered on failed ballot drives and bad campaigns.
Republicans, meanwhile, caught a big break in 2010 and have used complete control in the Capitol to rewrite the rule book about how quickly one side can enact the change it wants when it decides to use the power voters have awarded them. A 2012 election that might have given Republicans pause only seems to have emboldened them.
Right to Work rushes to fore
Right to Work legislation has been percolating in West Michigan business circles for half a decade now, but was always thought to be untenable given the detente between labor and big business in Southeast Michigan. Snyder was assumed to side with the view that when labor and management got along in a big industrial state like Michigan, everyone prospered more than when they didn’t.
When he said this issue – which he declared unnecessarily divisive – wasn’t on his agenda, one could logically infer that he opposed it on the grounds that its dubious economic benefits weren’t worth the strife enactment would cause. Support, moreover, deviated from his efforts early on to distance himself from the more confrontational approaches of fellow first-term Republican governors in other Big Ten states.
After issuing his tepid endorsement of fast-tracking lame-duck Right to Work bills last Thursday (at least compared to Speaker Jase Bolger’s robust enthusiasm), the Capitol that candidate Snyder had vowed to fix appeared as broken as ever two years into his first term. Right to Work had been put on the table “whether I wanted it to be there or not,” Snyder passively explained.
The more productive approach would have been to use the threat of proposed Right to Work legislation to extract from the public employee unions a host of concessions they appeared to be willing to make — amputation being preferable to death in legislative deal-making.
But that wouldn’t have addressed private sector labor and the contention among business conservatives that Michigan would be more competitive if it could Etch-a-Sketch its reputation as the birthplace of organized labor. That view was ushered into the House when Republicans seized control in 2010 and elected Bolger their leader. It’s a view that would have been unthinkable not so long ago when the Michigan Education Association could count on the bipartisan support of 65-plus members of the Legislature.
As this year’s lame duck session commenced, Senate Republicans, who perhaps have a keener appreciation for political self-preservation, were told by donors to get with the program. Concerns that labor would seek to reverse a Right to Work statute on a 2014 ballot, on which many of them will stand for re-election, were met with assurances that, if they didn’t act, conservatives would go to the ballot themselves.
Ball’s in Democrats’ court now
Republicans will now test what Democrats should well know: Legislative majorities, no matter how large, can evaporate when their preservation is subsumed by the narrower interests of those who write the campaign checks. Whether they pay a political price depends on whether Democrats can turn what should have been a sleepy, incumbent-friendly off-year election into something far bigger. If it wasn’t already clear, Michigan is Exhibit A of what can happen when a blue state in presidential elections turns red in the off-year.
When Democrats turn out their vote, they pick up seats. They gained in the House last month and should have gained more. A Senate tally of 12 seats in 2010 would have been 18 had the chamber been up this year, according to strategist Ed Sarpolus. Snyder’s brand of popular gubernatorial leadership that stressed pragmatic bipartisanship over political warfare has certainly been dented.
Right to Work in Michigan is less about economic development than it is about symbolism, payback and the pursuit of political advantage. How long it remains on the books depends on whether Democrats are sufficiently motivated to view the repeal of it on those terms as well.