Organized labor in Michigan: the dog that didn’t bark
While Governor Snyder and Michigan Republicans are pleased with their victories, the real lesson in this year’s election cycle is about the dog that didn’t bark, let alone bite. This was a terrible year for unions in Michigan. Not only did the candidates favorable to their agenda lose, unions also failed to force the election to be a referendum on labor issues.
Michigan has long been a stronghold for organized labor, both in the private- and public- sectors. After the 2010 wave election, the state has been in a constant battle over labor policy.
Michigan passed a series of laws that were fought by big labor. Lawmakers passed paycheck protection, strengthened the state emergency manager law, increased public employee shared insurance premiums, stopped an SEIU dues skim, and removed the cap on charter schools among a host of other reforms.
Unions fought back by introducing a state constitutional amendment to put collective bargaining agreement terms above state laws and eliminate right-to-work as option. When voters spoke out, Republicans certified their voice by passing right-to-work, making union dues an optional obligation.
Yet none of these issues were mentioned much in the election. Democrats complained about phantom cuts to education, eliminating exemptions for pension income for younger retirees and general economic inequality issues.
On the other side of the aisle, Republicans did not run away from their labor reforms. But they were not central to their pitch for votes, either. Mostly they emphasized the state’s economic recovery.
There’s no question that the state’s economy is improving. And its sustained recovery from a decade-long recession continues unabated. Yet there is an open question about how much Republican policy is responsible for the growth.
The issues of the campaign matter to the policies that change after an election. Republicans delivered on their campaign promises from 2010. Without making labor reforms an issue in 2014, these policies are bound to be as permanent as anything in politics.
It is unclear how unions will respond to these policy changes and election losses. Right-to-work already has unions focusing more of their time on demonstrating their value to their own members. Perhaps it will mean that their resources will go more towards workplace representation instead of politics.
But if that is the case, unions remain a force. There are 631,000 union members in Michigan. Union-sponsored political action committees still spend millions on elections. They remain the top donors to the Democratic Governors Association, which was the largest purchaser of ads in Michigan.
For all those political resources, they could not turn the election in favor of their issues or their candidates. Perhaps this means that they will pivot into representing their members instead of trying to win elections.