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George Will / Dec. 16, 2012

Michigan's Watershed Moment

WASHINGTON -- Rick Snyder, who is hardly a human cactus, warned Michigan's labor leaders. The state's mild-mannered Republican governor, currently in his first term in his first public office, has rarely been accused of being, or praised for being, a fire-breathing conservative. When unions put on Michigan's November ballot two measures that would have entrenched collective bargaining rights in the state Constitution, Snyder told them they were picking a fight they might regret. Both measures lost resoundingly in the state with the fifth highest rate of unionization (17.5 percent, down from 28.4 percent in 1985) and, not coincidentally, the sixth highest unemployment rate (9.1 percent). And Republicans decided to build upon that outcome by striking a blow for individual liberty and against coerced funding of the Democratic Party. Hence the right-to-work laws passed by the Republican-controlled Legislature to prohibit the requirement of paying union dues as a condition of employment.

WASHINGTON – Rick Snyder, who is hardly a human cactus, warned Michigan’s labor leaders. The state’s mild-mannered Republican governor, currently in his first term in his first public office, has rarely been accused of being, or praised for being, a fire-breathing conservative. When unions put on Michigan’s November ballot two measures that would have entrenched collective bargaining rights in the state Constitution, Snyder told them they were picking a fight they might regret.

Both measures lost resoundingly in the state with the fifth highest rate of unionization (17.5 percent, down from 28.4 percent in 1985) and, not coincidentally, the sixth highest unemployment rate (9.1 percent). And Republicans decided to build upon that outcome by striking a blow for individual liberty and against coerced funding of the Democratic Party. Hence the right-to-work laws passed by the Republican-controlled Legislature to prohibit the requirement of paying union dues as a condition of employment.

The unions’ frenzy against this freedom is as understandable as their desire to abolish the right of secret ballots in unionization elections: Freedom is not the unions’ friend. After Colorado in 2001 required public employees unions to have annual votes reauthorizing collection of dues, membership in the Colorado Association of Public Employees declined 70 percent. After Indiana’s government in 2005 stopped collecting dues from unionized public employees, the number of dues-paying members plummeted 90 percent. In Utah, the automatic dues deductions for political activities was ended in 2001; made voluntary, payments from teachers declined 90 percent. After a similar measure in Washington state in 1992, the percentage of teachers making contributions fell from 82 to 11. The Democratic Party’s desperate opposition to the liberation of workers from compulsory membership in unions is because unions are conveyor belts moving coerced dues money into the party.

Nationwide, resentment of union power has been accumulating like steam in a boiler. The Wall Street Journal reports that in the last four years “nearly every state … has enacted some form of pension changes” clawing back unsustainable benefits promised to unionized government employees. The most conspicuous battle was in Wisconsin, where Republican Gov. Scott Walker survived organized labor’s attempt to recall him as punishment for restricting collective bargaining by unionized government workers. After Walker’s reforms, Indiana under Republican Gov. Mitch Daniels became the 23rd right-to-work state, and the first in the industrial Midwest.

By becoming the 24th right-to-work state, Michigan is belatedly becoming serious about what Daniel Boorstin, the late historian and Librarian of Congress, called entrepreneurial federalism. This is the wholesome competition among states to emulate others’ best practices, and to avoid and exploit others’ follies.

Indiana and Wisconsin are, fortunately for them, contiguous to Illinois, where Democratic power is completely unrestrained and spectacularly unsuccessful. Indiana noticed Wisconsin’s competitive advantage in attracting businesses from Illinois and elsewhere. Michigan also has noticed. Yet unions call what Michigan, Indiana and Wisconsin have done a “race to the bottom.” This flapdoodle and folderol come from unions that have contributed mightily to Michigan’s painful acquaintance with the bottom.

If you seek a monument to Michigan’s unions, look, if you can without wincing, at Detroit, where the amount of vacant land is approaching the size of Paris. And where the United Auto Workers, which once had more than 1 million members and now has about 380,000, won contracts that crippled the local industry – and prompted the growth of the non-unionized auto industry that is thriving elsewhere. Detroit’s rapacious and oblivious government employees unions are parasitic off a near-corpse of a city that has lost 25 percent of its population just since 2000. The Wall Street Journal reports that because some government workers with defined-benefit pensions can retire in their 40s, “many retirees living into their 80s are drawing benefits for nearly twice as long as they work.”

Many liberals who, with solemn self-congratulation, call themselves “pro-choice” become testy when the right to choose is not confined to choosing to kill unborn babies. They say the right to choose is not progressive when it enables parents to choose their children’s schools, or permits workers to choose not to fund unions’ political advocacy.

Democrats who soon will celebrate two of their party’s saints at Jefferson-Jackson Day dinners should jettison either their opposition to right-to-work laws or their reverence for Jefferson, who said: “To compel a man to furnish contributions of money for the propagation of opinions which he disbelieves and abhors is sinful and tyrannical.”

© 2012, Washington Post Writers Group

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