Organized labor may be celebrating the presidential election, but union leaders who take the long view have good cause to be worried.
Proposal 2’s failure indicates the unions miscalculated the mood of Michigan voters and that a national trend of confronting public union arrangements will continue.
The union machine has been showing signs of rot in the past few years. Union membership itself has been dropping for decades. State government leaders, including Gov. Scott Walker of Wisconsin and Gov. Mitch Daniels of Indiana, have recently championed reforms to stabilize budgets and rein in the oversized influence of government unions. Voters in San Diego and San Jose insisted on pension cuts for city workers, and that reform will likely spread to other municipalities.
Above all, Gov. Rick Snyder has demonstrated a willingness to address labor policy if government functions can be improved (e.g., charter schools, emergency financial managers, public pensions).
Union leaders in Michigan saw an opportunity to reverse this decline and circumvent public union reform by injecting the constitution with a labor-friendly inoculation; Proposal 2 would have empowered government unions to override sensible reforms at the bargaining table and would have hog-tied legislators and local officials. The measure also would have guaranteed an untouchable funding source for organized labor. If successful in Michigan, national labor leaders planned to export the strategy of constitutional amendment to other states, according to the president of the AFL-CIO.
Michigan voters strongly rejected Prop 2, refusing to be the test-case for locking union power into Midwest constitutions.
The vote could indicate a fundamental shift in the way unions are perceived. Union strength relies on the ability to force workers into union representation against their will. Labor leaders have tested the limits of outrage by even organizing caretakers of disabled family members and labeling them as “public employees” in order to skim dues off their Medicaid payments (a measure Michigan also voted down this election).
Rejection of Prop 2 will only come as a surprise to those who believe that coercion is a justifiable means to guarantee organized labor. The people’s votes, on the other hand, suggest that they desire a choice in the matter.