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Passage of ‘Right-to-Work’ Law in Michigan Points to Weakened Labor Union Power

December 11, 2012 at 12:00 AM EST
What will the passage of 'right to work' laws in Michigan mean for unions in what had once been a stronghold for organized labor? Judy Woodruff talks to Forbes.com contributor Micheline Maynard in Ann Arbor and Bill Ballenger of Inside Michigan Politics, who explain why unions' political power has weakened.
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JUDY WOODRUFF: Michigan, a state considered a cradle of the union movement, today struck a blow against organized labor. The Republican-dominated state legislature approved laws that deny unions the right to require membership in exchange for a job.

More than 12,000 people gathered outside the state capitol in Lansing to protest the move. Inside, they chanted “Shame on you” at Republican Gov. Rick Snyder. And late today, Snyder signed the bill.

For more on all, we’re joined by Micheline Maynard, a contributor to Forbes.com and former Detroit bureau chief for The New York Times, and by Bill Ballenger, editor of Inside Michigan Politics.

Welcome to you both.

And, Micki Maynard, first, this has all happened very quickly. What precipitated this right now?

MICHELINE MAYNARD, Forbes.com: There were two things that happened, Judy.

First of all, in November, there was a ballot proposal that unions floated that would have outlawed right-to-work. It would have put that into the state constitution.

And that proposal failed because it was proposed at the same time as a lot of constitutional amendments. And people just sort of cast one vote against all of them.

The second thing that happened was Republicans gave up some seats in the House and Senate. There will still be a Republican majority in January, but it will be smaller. And so if right-to-work was going to happen, this lame-duck Republican-controlled legislature was basically where it was going to happen.

JUDY WOODRUFF: So, Bill Ballenger, in a state that voted by 10 points for President Obama in November, it’s a state that is striking a blow for right-to-work. How do you explain that?

BILL BALLENGER, Inside Michigan Politics: There was a mixed result on Nov. 6. I think everything Micki said is absolutely true, but Republicans still control state government. They have got an ironclad grip from the governor’s office, both houses of the legislature, the state Supreme Court, attorney general, secretary of state.

And the window was closing. There are only two weeks left before the end of the year. And they had to get it done now or they were going to turn into pumpkins on New Year’s Eve, and only have a slim majority that might not be enough to get right-to-work to pass early next year.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Micki Maynard, the Republicans are saying this is going to help the state’s economy, what has happened. Is there a consensus in the state about whether that is correct or not?

MICHELINE MAYNARD: No, absolutely not.

And what Republicans have been saying — and I have been listening to this discussion for the better part of a couple of years — is that Michigan needs to be right-to-work so that it can compete with other states for investment.

If you look across the American South, all those states that have landed those new Japanese, German, Korean car plants, they are right-to-work states, with the exception of Ohio now, because Indiana has become a right-to-work state. And actually there’s a great rivalry between Indiana and Michigan.

And Mitch Daniels, the governor in Indiana, essentially said if we want to be competitive with the South, we need right-to-work. They got right-to-work. And I think Indiana was a reason why Michigan got right-to-work.

But opponents of this legislation and now law would say, you hurt the middle class. You lower wages. It’s much harder for unions to represent people, to look out for their best interests. And they have essentially predicted all kinds of gloom and doom for the state of Michigan now that this is law.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Bill Ballenger, what’s your take on that, and is there a consensus on what this means now for Michigan workers and for Michigan employers?

BILL BALLENGER: Well, Micki’s right. They are anticipating, most people are, that somehow this is really going to strike a terrible blow to organized labor, that they’re going to lose membership. They’re going to lose money. And they’re just going to wither on the vine and die.

I’m not convinced necessarily that’s true. As Gov. Snyder has said, look, if labor unions can demonstrate to the workers that they can deliver a good product for their members, they should be able to continue to thrive. So I’m not convinced it’s going to be as terrible as everybody is predicting.

But it certainly is not going to help organized labor. They are going to lose some memberships. We have seen that in other states.

We have seen it in Wisconsin and for that matter in the last year in Indiana membership starting to dwindle in some key unions as a result of the labor reforms that those Republican-dominated legislatures have taken.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Micki Maynard, what is the sense of the effect that this is going to have on organized labor — you talked about other states — not just in Michigan, but beyond Michigan borders?

MICHELINE MAYNARD: One of the things I have watched the labor movement do over the last basically four or five years is a lot of the focus was on getting Barack Obama or a Democrat elected president and also getting representatives and senators elected to Washington.

I think they took their eye off the ball to some extent in these local races. Well, now we see what happens when you don’t have the feet on the ground, the money in the local races. You end up with state legislatures that are unfriendly to labor causes. So I think it’s a wakeup call for labor nationally to focus on some of these states.

I’m thinking about Ohio now. Ohio passed and then repealed a limit on collective bargaining for public employees, but it doesn’t mean that the issue won’t come up there again.

There are states like Pennsylvania that are not right-to-work states. There are still opportunities for the conservative movement, the anti-labor movement to go in for right-to-work. And I think someone maybe in the labor movement will say, OK, we draw a land in the sand with Michigan.

We can’t let this spread any further, because there’s clearly a domino effect.

JUDY WOODRUFF: What about that, Bill Ballenger? What do you see? How do you see this in the grand scheme of the face-off that continues now between organized labor and those who believe it’s — what organized labor does hurts — can hurt the economy?

BILL BALLENGER: Well, a couple of things. We shouldn’t forget that what was passed today in the legislature affects public employees, in addition to the private sector work force.

We have been talking about the automobile industry, but this affects schoolteachers, state and local public employees, anybody who is part of a public employee union. They are affected by this. And they are just as angry as the private sector workers.

In fact, the only growth sector in the union movement in this country over the last decade or two has been in the public sector. So that was a big target of today. I think you’re going to see some recall efforts. They’re going to start up again, although, by the way, the Republican legislature has now amended the recall law to make recalls tougher.

And I think there will be a lot of litigation. This is going to be fought out for a long time. This thing isn’t a slam dunk over and done with today. This was a major event, but this battle is going to continue for days and weeks into the future.

JUDY WOODRUFF: A major event, for sure.

And we thank both of you for talking with us, Bill Ballenger and Micheline Maynard.

MICHELINE MAYNARD: Thank you.

BILL BALLENGER: Thank you, Judy.