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Michigan 'right to work' law: Should GOP brace for backlash?

Mark GuarinoThe Christian Science Monitor

Now that GOP-led Michigan lawmakers have approved a so-called right-to-work law, defying hot-under-the-collar union members and most Democrats, the next question becomes this: Should they be worried about reprisal?

There's certainly precedent for concern. In two other Midwestern states that took on Big Labor, the unions fought back, hard. Ohio voters ultimately undid a law that limited unions' collective bargaining powers, and Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker and several GOP lawmakers faced bruising recall elections this year (though the governor ultimately prevailed) after that state clipped union clout in bargaining.

Michigan-based union leaders, moreover, are already talking tough. “Let me tell the governor and all those elected officials who vote for this shameful, divisive bill – there will be repercussions," Teamsters General President Jim Hoffa said in a statement Tuesday just before the Michigan bills were finalized. "Some day soon, they will face the voters of Michigan and they will have to explain why they sided with the billionaires to back this destructive legislation.”

The legislation, which Gov. Rick Snyder (R) signed late Tuesday, bars unions from forcing workers to join their ranks or to pay monthly dues to retain their jobs, making Michigan the 24th state to adopt what backers call a "right-to-work" law. The Republicans' move to push such a law appeared to catch labor leaders off guard, as Governor Snyder had previously said he was not inclined to push for legislation that unions perceive as hostile, especially in a state where the International Brotherhood of Teamsters and United Auto Workers have deep roots.

But Michigan lawmakers say unions have no one but themselves to blame. The unions' decision to push for a November referendum to amend the state constitution to protect collective bargaining rights had infuriated the Republicans. When the referendum lost badly, the GOP interpreted that as a green light to rush through the legislature two right-to-work bills – one aimed at public-sector unions and the second at private. The package, which does not apply to police or firefighter unions, was introduced last Thursday, and by Friday both the state House and Senate had voted in favor. A final vote took place Tuesday, and Governor Snyder then signed the package.

“When the unions made the effort to push through the referendum and lost resoundingly, that changed the game,” says Marick Masters, a political scientist and labor management relations expert at Wayne State University in Detroit. “That amendment angered the conservative base of the Republican Party to no end, and so they decided to pursue right-to-work aggressively.”

Snyder told MSNBC Tuesday the unions were warned to expect a reprisal if they proceeded with the referendum on the constitutional amendment.

“I asked them not to go forward. And the reason I said is, ‘You’re going to start a very divisive discussion. It’ll be about collective bargaining first, but it’ll create a big stir about right-to-work in addition to collective bargaining.’ ”

The experience of neighboring Indiana, where a right-to-work measure was approved in February, also emboldened Michigan lawmakers. Many said they believed that businesses would migrate from Michigan to Indiana as a result, hurting an already-struggling Michigan economy.

But the thousands of union workers and their supporters who stormed the streets surrounding the state Capitol on Tuesday perceive right-to-work as a bid to weaken unions – and not as strictly intended to boost economic development, as Republicans suggest. Some union leaders say their next step is to mobilize efforts to defeat Snyder and other Republicans in the next election in 2014.

Mr. Masters says he expects Democrats to push for a ballot initiative to rescind the right-to-work law. He also expects Snyder, who often portrays himself as a moderate, to align himself more with the Republican Party to ensure its support for any coming fight.

“He will be in pretty good shape," Masters says. "You will see him angle very carefully to the right to make certain he doesn’t have a primary opponent” for his 2014 reelection bid.

Snyder leads a hypothetical Democratic opponent, 47 percent to 41 percent, according to a Public Policy Polling survey released in mid-November. That's an improvement from a similar poll a year earlier. The poll surveyed 700 likely Michigan voters and has a margin of error of 3.7 percentage points.

To Republicans calculating the political risks of their bold right-to-work gambit, the experience in Indiana – not Wisconsin or Ohio – may have been the precedent that mattered most. There, Republican lawmakers faced reelection in the same year they approved a right-to-work bill. Because of term limits, Indiana Gov. Mitch Daniels (R) did not himself have to run on that record, but his party easily retained the governor's office in November.

“The Republicans now have a quorum-proof majority in both houses after the last election,” says Brian Vargus, a political scientist at Indiana University-Purdue University in Indianapolis.

Union anger over right-to-work did “not resonate” at the polls in November because Governor Daniels' message “about his need to get unions out of politics” resonated with voters amid a climate of economic uncertainty, says Mr. Vargus.

“The image [Republicans created] was that all unions cared about were their pensions.... And they also made the argument that right-to-work was about getting jobs,” Vargus says. “And this election was all about jobs.”