December 11, 2012 at 1:00 am

Daniel Howes

Right-to-work vote defining moment

High stakes gambit by Snyder, GOP is betting economic gains trump dissent, conflict, division

The Republican push for right-to-work legislation, expected to reach a crescendo today in Lansing, is another step in the convulsive reckoning of a 21st-century Michigan grappling with its post-war industrial legacy.

It's a bet that the power of labor is waning in a traditional labor state, that political adversaries are more willing than anytime in memory to challenge that power, that the preponderance of voters long ago tired of the same old labor-management battles always pushing things in the wrong direction.

The symbolism — and the potential impact — of all this cannot be overstated. In the arc of history, here's the home of the Walter Reuther and United Auto Workers, Jimmy Hoffa and the International Brotherhood of Teamsters, poised to become the nation's 24th right-to-work state, a prospect anathema to generations of unionists.

Undertaken with unprecedented speed, the move is a high-stakes gambit by Gov. Rick Snyder, GOP leaders in the Legislature and their deep-pocketed backers that the real risks of conflict, dissension and division can be trumped by the expected economic payoff in jobs, investment, image and the financial weakening of organized labor.

That's the theory, anyway. The reality is likely to be more muddled and less certain as partisan bickering and expected union legal challenges of the impending law clash with politicized demands for proof — proof! — that right-to-work in Michigan yields waves of jobs … overnight.

It probably won't. But the move, coupled with a coming financial workout for Detroit, is likely to reshape positively the debate about Michigan and its largest city among CEOs and investors looking for opportunity and growth — provided the national economy isn't pushed back into recession by Washington's plunge off a "fiscal cliff" of its own making.

The biggest surprise here is that it took this long for Snyder and the GOP to call a question turned inevitable when Indiana declared itself right to work early this year, when Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker survived a recall attempt in June and when Ohio Republicans learned the hard lessons of over-reaching with their own anti-union reforms.

Michigan Republicans seem determined to avoid the mistakes of their Ohio counterparts, a key reason police and fire unions are exempt from the right-to-work legislation. Still, the sweep of change across the industrial Midwest signals that the breaching of the heartland's labor strongholds is not an aberration.

This is what the next step in a real reckoning looks like, a rolling economic reset that challenges established institutions, shatters decade-long assumptions and, yes, settles a few scores even as it opens new ones. Century-old automakers rush through bankruptcy, pushed by their federal paymasters. The city of Detroit, its leaders paralyzed by dysfunction, teeters on the edge of financial collapse.

And organized labor, fresh from a failed effort to enshrine collective bargaining rights in the state constitution, faces its most serious existential threat since the Sit-Down strikes and Battle of the Overpass cemented the institutional permanence of the UAW.

Until now. A right-to-work law that gives members the choice to join a union rank-and-file — or not to join — threatens to stanch materially the union dues flow, membership and, accordingly, the political muscle predominantly used by unions in the service of the Democratic Party.

Looking for a reason to explain the Michigan GOP's decision to join this battle now and why Michigan Democrats are in full-throated opposition? That's it, and the fact that the prospects for passing any kind of right-to-work law in the next session of the Legislature proved to be less optimistic than jamming it through lame duck, offering tepid rationales based on "choice" and getting out of town.

Yes, this is a defining moment — for Snyder and the Republicans, for Michigan's economy and the prospect for growth and investment, for organized labor and the flailing leadership of UAW President Bob King.

His decision to back away from an agreement to support Snyder's New International Trade Crossing bridge and mull switching the union's allegiance to Ambassador Bridge mogul Matty Moroun infuriated business interests. And his call to back the collective bargaining ballot question, despite warnings by Snyder of political repercussions, increased the likelihood that a right-to-work bill would become reality.

It has, risking the political and financial clout of unions woven into the fabric of Michigan. It also opened a titanic political battle that won't spare business and won't end whenever the governor signs the bill into law. It'll just be starting.

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Daniel Howes’ column runs Tuesdays, Thursdays and Fridays.

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