December 12, 2012 at 12:00 pm

Daniel Howes

Mich. businesses hesitate to embrace right-to-work law

Michigan may now be the nation's 24th right-to-work state, pending a 90-day waiting period, but the silence coming from the state's business community is mostly deafening.

Yes, the Michigan Chamber of Commerce and West Michigan Policy Forum strongly support the controversial bills passed Tuesday in Lansing and signed by Gov. Rick Snyder. Others? Not so much, at least not in any public way that could invite retribution from outside or blowback from inside.

Detroit's automakers are neutral. The Detroit Regional Chamber is neutral. Business Leaders for Michigan generally is sympathetic to the intent, but "the reason we never dealt with right to work is we could never reach a consensus among our members on how to deal with it," says Doug Rothwell, president of Business Leaders for Michigan.

That's the rub: As sympathetic as individual CEOs may be in theory to right-to-work laws and the economic principles of freedom and competition at their core, the realities of established union work forces, a desire for relative comity in the workplace and hunger for stability in the state economy make the prospect more fraught than its backers are willing to acknowledge.

Asked by The Detroit News for comment on right-to-work bills poised to become Michigan law, a spokesman for one Detroit automaker likened the question to an invitation for stepping into a pile of excrement. No upside, none sought and none willingly offered because the real world intrudes.

From automakers and suppliers to hospitals, utilities and the state's Big Three universities, among many sectors, the people who run companies and institutions already well-established here are constrained in their enthusiasm for right to work — if they support it at all — by existing relationships, business imperatives and good old-fashioned caution.

Dick DeVos, a one-time Republican candidate and former CEO of Amway who now heads the Grand Rapids-based Windquest Group, is not among them. He's a key financial backer of the successful effort to defeat the collective bargaining amendment, Proposal 2, and an ardent supporter of the right-to-work law.

Established labor-management relations in most companies, he said in an interview, are not "going to change. For the majority of working Michiganians, I don't think it's going to change. For the majority of companies who have good relationships with their unions, their good relationships will continue."

The historic reversal for labor in the birthplace of the modern union movement, in DeVos's view, amounts to three things: freedom from being forced to join a union (or to pay an "agency fee") as a condition of employment; a new advantage in efforts to lure would-be investors in the economic development competition between states; and what he calls the "union boss accountability."

The problem isn't passing the law, as majority Republicans in the House and Senate demonstrated this week despite fury from Democrats, union leaders, their members and others. The problem, as many business leaders see it, is what comes next — the legal challenges and recalls, the positive and negative hits to Michigan's image, the ability of Snyder and smaller Republican majorities in both houses to deliver progress in an embittered Legislature.

"We were not advocating for putting right to work on the political agenda," Sandy Baruah, president of the Detroit Chamber, said in an email. "At a time when so many things are going in the right direction, adding such a divisive issue is not welcomed.

"The fight over right to work will not end with today's vote. This will lead to messy and unproductive recall elections and will decrease, not increase, the level of political and social cohesion in the state."

Backers of right to work may reject the chamber's rationale as too cautious, too rooted in Old Michigan and its go-along-to-get-along mentality. They — and I — can list a lengthy parade of uglies from organized labor that contributed to decisions to kill jobs, close plants, sell assets and even file bankruptcies.

They're all true and, in that sense, Exhibits One through whatever in making the case for right to work. The question — and it's way too soon to know the answer — is whether the coming turmoil will yield better economic results for Michigan, its companies and its taxpayers than the evolving status quo otherwise would.

"It's damaging to the climate," said Mike Duggan, the Detroit Medical Center CEO, who is stepping down to prepare a run for mayor of Detroit. Right to work is "forcing an inevitable reaction that I don't think we can predict."

Why? The Great Recession has not been kind to Michigan's labor unions, public and private. The United Auto Workers' dues-paying membership, for one, has been decimated by the implosion of the Detroit auto industry and repeatedly failed attempts to organize foreign-owned rivals operating in the United States. Budget cuts are squeezing public payrolls, reducing the top lines for public sector unions.

Meaning arguably endangered institutions led by increasingly desperate leaders now face a game-changer of epic proportions. Like a wounded animal, that kind of predicament can elicit the dangerous, even self-destructive, reactions feared by business leaders living the real Michigan economy.

Hard as it may be for thousands of protesters to swallow, Michigan's march into the ranks of right-to-work states is a logical next step in a necessary break from its failed post-war industrial model. The challenge for right to work's advocates, and their silent supporters in C-suites across the state, is proving themselves right.

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Daniel Howes’ column runs Tuesdays, Thursdays and Fridays.

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