America’s most important ballot question that you’ve never heard of (yet)
Published: September 12th, 2012
Gov. Scott Walker took on Wisconsin’s public-sector unions — and won. Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel is battling his city’s school teachers.
Now comes the counter-revolution, represented by Michigan’s Proposal 2, dubbed the “Protect Our Jobs Act.”
The initiative states: “No existing or future law of the state or its political subdivisions shall abridge, impair or limit ” the union organizing rights listed.
Talk about an advance directive. “Rights” listed in the proposal reference nearly unlimited protections to form and keep labor unions in the public sector, with profound implications also for the private sector — and to compel unwilling actors to join unions as a condition of employment.
For fiscal conservatives and advocates of limited and open government, Michigan’s Prop. 2 is likely the most important state ballot question you’ve never heard of (yet).
Advocates include the United Auto Workers, the Michigan Education Association, the National Education Association, the state nurses association, the American Federation of Teachers, the AFL-CIO, the state Utility Workers Council, and others.
Governor Rick Snyder opposes the measure — but has also said he does not want a mirroring battle over right-to-work. He contends both issues are overly divisive at a time the state is finally showing signs of economic recovery.
A vice president of the National Right to Work Committee called POJA an “economic death warrant” for the state. A member of the Michigan Nurses Association called it an assurance that workers will have “a voice” in the work they do.
Opponents tried to bump Prop 2 from the ballot, saying it was too complex to stand before voters as a single measure, but last week the state Supreme Court slated it for the November ballot.
POJA is a direct assault on the Taft-Hartley Act, the historic compromise that established many federal provisions facilitating union organizing, while protecting freedom of association for dissenters and, as importantly, an ability for states to establish right-to-work provisions.
The focus on the public sector is perhaps no surprise, as only government-sector labor unions have been growing over the last several decades. And now the pay and benefits of those union members have become catastrophic for state budgets from California to New York — a fact that has led to all-out battles, like the failed union-backed effort to recall Wisconsin Gov. Walker.
Over time, 23 states, including Oklahoma have chosen the right-to-work option permitted in federal law.
The most recent is Indiana, a place that, much like Oklahoma, is doing better economically than most of the country, and most neighboring states. Indiana is led by Gov. Mitch Daniels, the Republican some analysts (not all of them conservative) consider the best American governor of the Great Recession era.
Oklahoma is led by Gov. Mary Fallin. As lieutenant governor in 2000, she took up her office’s rarely used constitutional power to run the state Senate, forcing a timely vote that laid the basis for a 2001 referendum, the most important economic development step in state history.
One GOP strategist, Bill Rustem, says POJA is “like Belladonna [the plant also known as Deadly Nightshade]: it looks good on the outside, but inside it’s poison.”
F. Vincent Vernuccio, labor policy specialist at the free-market Mackinac Center in Michigan, summarized in an interview the practical effect of POJA:
•The initiative would repeal anything in the Public Employment Relations Act not specified in the state constitution.
•It would repeal laws that require public employees to contribute to their pensions.
•It would repeal the 80/20 law that requires taxpayers pay no more than 80 percent for government employee healthcare premiums. Repealing 80/20 alone could cost more than $500 million annually.
•Would allow public officials to agree that negotiations with union officials are not subject to the Freedom of Information Act and Open Meetings Act.
•Public school reforms such as privatization for non-instructional services could vanish.
•Could prohibit performance-based evaluation of teachers.
•Would end binding arbitration as a requirement for public safety officers who had been forbidden to strike, exposing the state to union action among cops and firefighters.
Vernuccio, a smart fellow, was ahead of the curve in his analyses, but now every day brings more stories echoing his dire assessment. All told, an astonishing 170 Michigan laws affecting unions would be struck down if the initiative passes.
As the Heritage Foundation’s James Sherk observed in an article for The New York Times, “Union contracts make it next to impossible to reward excellent teachers or fire failing ones. Union contracts give government employees gold-plated benefits — at the cost of higher taxes and less spending on other priorities. The alternative to Walker’s budget was kicking 200,000 children off Medicaid. Governor Walker’s plan reasserts voter control over government policy. Voters’ elected representatives should decide how the government spends their taxes.”
The Tea Party and Chamber of Commerce are allies in Michigan; on the other side, “Progress Michigan” is appealing to the “social justice” tradition of the Catholic Church.
The cultural gap normally seen among such groups is temporarily submerged in the depths of Lake Michigan, as unusual allies prepare for what rhetoric indicates is the equivalent of a certain meeting on the plain at Armageddon.
By August, the unions had already raised more than $8 million — and that’s just the official sum. As was the case in Oklahoma’s historic 2001 right-to-work referendum (which conservatives won), the unions will spend at least twice whatever is officially reported.
The business community and others are now responding, building their own war chest.
Union workers may see POJA as a windfall. Actually it would be the final death knell for competitiveness in the once-great industrial engine of American manufacturing. Excessive union power impedes American competitiveness. Any victory for monopoly powers in any state, particularly in the government sector, will be used as a template or model for future union growth schemes.
NOTE: This is updated from an essay in the September edition of Perspective, monthly publication of the Oklahoma Council of Public Affairs. Pat McGuigan is the author of “The Politics of Direct Democracy: Case Studies in Popular Decision Making