| September 4, 2012

The Most Important State Ballot Question You’ve Never Heard Of (Yet)

The Protect Our Jobs Act (POJA) is either an “economic death warrant” for the state of Michigan, or an assurance that health care workers have “a voice in the care” they provide.

The “death warrant” summary came from a vice president of the National Right to Work Committee; the “quality of care” assertion from a member of the Michigan Nurses Association.

It seems the twain will not meet in this matter. POJA is either a deadly poison, or a promise of joy.

They’re talking about a ballot initiative slated for November which states: “No existing or future law of the state or its political subdivisions shall abridge, impair or limit the foregoing rights.”

Talk about an advance directive. The “rights” listed in the proposal all reference an essentially unlimited right to form and then protect 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.

The proposal is a direct assault on the Taft-Hartley Act, the historic compromise that established many federal provisions facilitating union organizing, while leaving safety valves to protect 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.

Over the course of 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 that 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, recently summarized 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 and the 80/20 law which requires that taxpayers pay no more than 80 percent for government employee healthcare premiums. Repealing 80/20 alone could cost more than $500 million annually.
  • The Freedom of Information Act and Open Meetings Act could be curtailed by collective bargaining agreements. Even the laws making those agreements public could be repealed.
  • Public school reforms such as privatization for non-instructional services could vanish.
  • Performance-based reforms to teacher tenure laws that prevent hiring and firing of teachers based solely on seniority could be stricken by collective bargaining agreements.
  • Binding arbitration laws where public safety officers, who are forbidden to strike, rely on arbitrators to decide contracts when negations are at an impasse would be repealed.

Vernuccio’s summary makes the point: For fiscal conservatives and advocates of limited government, the Michigan proposal is likely the most important state ballot question you’ve never heard of (yet).

Vernuccio is a smart fellow. In this case, he was ahead of the curve, but now every day brings more news and commentaries out of Michigan echoing his dire assessment.

All told, an astonishing 170 laws affecting unions would be slapped down if the initiative passes.

In June, labor union activists and their Democratic allies submitted 554,375 signatures (489,720 of which were valid) to get the constitutional initiative on the ballot. 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 getting hints of economic recovery.

Governor Scott Walker of Wisconsin has anticipated these sorts of battles. His tenure in office, leading to his dramatic retention in this summer’s recall election, has been marked by budget discipline, an aggressive pro-business posture, and, above all else, a willingness to take on the state’s powerful labor unions—including the “public employee associations” that function with many characteristics of union power.

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 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.

As of early August the unions had already raised more than $8 million—and that’s just the official, reported sums. 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 preparing to respond, and are moving quickly to build their own war chest.

The passion of advocates for this bad idea can scarcely be overstated. I realize this essay’s content will anger some friends. However, in the matter of public-sector unions and the ban on strikes, I come from a line of forebears named Bruce (yes, that’s the “B” in the name). They were union men.

My father, born in Michigan, was a government union man (Treasury Employees). My grandfather, born in Canada, was among the founders of the union local that represented workers at the Mead Paper Mill in Escanaba, Michigan.

Both entered adulthood as Democrats. At the end of his life, Daddy was a Reagan Republican. My Granddad, at the end of his, was a Reagan Democrat.

They both liked the former private union president who was a Democrat until the 1950s. They backed Reagan when, early in his presidency, he confronted the flight controllers’ union over a strike ban—and fired them all when they walked out.

In an essay for the journal National Affairs, Daniel DiSalvo said government-sector unions “may be the single biggest problem … for the U.S. economy and small-d democratic governance.”

He recalled what my father’s and grandfather’s favorite president until Reagan, Franklin Delano Roosevelt, declared in 1937 (four years into his presidency). “Meticulous attention,” the president insisted, “should be paid to the special relations and obligations of public servants to the public itself and to the Government. ... The process of collective bargaining, as usually understood, cannot be transplanted into the public service.”

FDR believed “[a] strike of public employees manifests nothing less than an intent on their part to obstruct the operations of government until their demands are satisfied. Such action looking toward the paralysis of government by those who have sworn to support it is unthinkable and intolerable.”

George Meany, my grandfather’s “president” during his years in the AFL-CIO, was blunt: “It is impossible to bargain collectively with the government.”

Fascinating: Modern Right and traditional Left converge. Michigan Attorney General Bill Schuette puts it plainly: the proposition is the equivalent of a Trojan Horse.

POJA looks like a gift at the gate. Actually it would be the final death knell for competitiveness in the once-great industrial engine of American manufacturing.

Oklahomans should care about this Michigan proposal for the same reasons that activists for liberty across the nation cared about our state’s right-to-work vote in 2001. Competition among the states for jobs and investment money is a positive force for the overall American economy. 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.

Patrick B. McGuigan (M.A. in history, Oklahoma State University) is editor of

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