Last Tuesday’s elections on most fronts represented a major setback for advocates of limited government. Yet it did produce its successes, most significantly, in Michigan. Voters in that state, by an unofficial 58 to 42 percent margin, rejected an initiative to authorize public employee unions, with few exceptions, to override existing and future state and local laws that “abridge, impair or limit” union collective bargaining rights. The measure, called Proposal 2 or the ‘Protect Our Jobs Amendment’ (POJA), would have amended the Michigan constitution to provide almost unlimited opportunities for union officials to file court challenges against what they see as unfavorable legislation. Because federal law long has protected collective bargaining rights in the private sector, this measure was a public-sector union gambit all but in name; “our jobs” and “union jobs” were synonymous.
Union Corruption Update two weeks before Election Day provided a lengthy analysis of this highly contentious campaign. The GOP-majority Michigan legislature, prodded by Republican Governor Rick Snyder and Attorney General Bill Schuette, had been seeking ways to defuse a looming budget disaster by instituting curbs on public-sector union collective bargaining demands. Building on the examples of neighboring Wisconsin and Indiana, each with a Republican governor (Scott Walker and Mitch Daniels, respectively) facing major fiscal problems, Michigan lawmakers under Snyder’s tenure have passed bills that: require higher contributions from unionized government employees toward health plans; authorize emergency fiscal managers to modify or terminate union contracts; and end automatic dues “check-offs” through which government agencies serve as fund collectors for unions. The unions, in response, drafted Proposal 2 and circulated it via petition. Initially, the measure was kept off the ballot because of a 2-2 deadlock among the Board of State Canvassers. But a September ruling by the Michigan Supreme Court allowed voters to decide the issue.
And they did, though not in the way unions anticipated. By nearly three to two, voters on November 6 rejected establishing collective bargaining by state and local government employees as a constitutional right and authorizing unions to challenge state or local labor laws presumably in conflict with existing agreements. Each side raised and spent a small fortune in hopes of swaying voters. Unions and their allies spent in excess of $23 million; opponents sunk in about $31 million. Union officials regularly denounced the latter sum as an expression of “corporate special interests.”
The vote against the unions was convincing. Yet to interpret the outcome as an overwhelming anti-union mandate would be premature. Voter opposition to some extent was motivated by procedural as well as substantive concerns. In other words, what Michigan voters rejected was not public-sector collective bargaining per se, but its enshrinement as a state constitutional right and its authorization of unions to override the legislative process. Proposal 2, in fact, was one of five measures on the November ballot in Michigan that proposed amending the state constitution; all were defeated (a sixth ballot measure, though not calling for a constitutional amendment, also lost). The day after the vote, union leaders released polling data from the Washington, D.C.-based Lake Research Partners showing Michigan residents strongly supportive of collective bargaining and unionism. “It would be a mistake for politicians in Lansing (i.e., the state capital) to…pass new laws that attack collective bargaining,” remarked David Mermin, a partner with the firm. Governor Snyder likewise understands the practical limits of opposition. He explained his position this way once the results were in: “I thought Proposal 2 was a massive overreach in terms of our constitution. I still believe in collective bargaining.”
Meanwhile, the era of hardball labor politics isn’t about to end. Given that Michigan in 2011 had the fifth-highest union membership rate in the country – 18.3 percent of the work force – the ability of unions to maximize their interests shouldn’t be underestimated. “As we go forward, we will hold political leadership in Lansing accountable for our belief in collective bargaining, particularly those who say they support collective bargaining,” said Karla Swift, president of the Michigan AFL-CIO. “Going forward” right now means thwarting proposed Right to Work legislation that would prevent a union from forcing a private-sector employer from firing employees who are unwilling to pay dues. Passage of Proposal 2 effectively would have superseded the possibility of such legislation. In the aftermath of its defeat, a Right to Work bill is back on the table. State Rep. Mike Shirkey, R-Clark Lake, a supporter, is optimistic. “I think we’ll start the debate soon, and I think we’ll make a great case,” he said. Unions in Michigan are guaranteed to make their case as well. And those across the U.S. will be paying close attention.