Big Labor may be surprised by the lack of widespread outrage

Is Michigan finally ready to embrace a new way of doing business or will this be yet another futile chapter in our long history of courting change and then fighting it every step of the way? Judging from the overheated rhetoric, doomsday prophecies, mass demonstrations and political grandstanding; one would guess that the world had indeed come to an end quite a few days short of December 21st. As a life-long Michigan resident I know from experience that only one thing causes that much ruckus; openly defying unions. Unions have had their boot on the throat of Michigan politics for decades, so a reform as major as right to work legislation would instinctively drive their leadership straight to code red. In theory, the existence of unions as the workers counterbalance to corporate greed and mistreatment would be both beneficial and desired. In practice, we frequently have unions that are less concerned with serving their members than making sure that their seat at the table of influence is never compromised. Our country is firmly controlled by Big Government, Big Business and Big Labor, so anything that causes a shift in the balance of power between them is reason to mobilize their supporters. As a small business owner, I, like any other average citizen, have no dependable representative in the decision making process.  In fact, none of us are even allowed a glimpse of what actually transpires when choices that affect our lives are being made; we are merely the stacks of chips that get pushed from one power broker to another.

Having one of these stacks of chips show up in force to protest on cue created the desired  impression for the cameras that the bulk of the state citizenry passionately disagreed with right to work legislation. Further analysis might show that for the 82.5% of the state’s workers who are not in a union, the true reactions would probably fall between full agreement with the new laws and general ambivalence. Union bosses may end up finding out that many of their own members, feeling that they are generally ignored unless its election time will not be all that worked up either. In the months ahead there may even be more union members who will be upset to find out that they can’t quit paying dues until their contracts expire than there will be right to work avengers. Can union leaders count on voters for support after undercover videos of some of their members drinking on breaks were widely aired, confirming the all too familiar tales of workplace abuse?  The story initially ended with the workers being fired but their recent miraculously and not surprising reinstatement can’t be an image booster. Those who are just scraping by and have grown up on stories of union workers pulling down six figures with amazing benefit packages by taking advantage of generous overtime contract clauses will not be eager to defend the status quo. New autoworkers who are trying to build a life on half as much as the old-timers next to them are paid may find little kinship with the union’s pitch of solidarity. There will always be those who will reflexively leap to defend an outmoded system that helped drive (with an equal assist from poor management) two of the nation’s three major automakers into bankruptcy. They will find nothing curious about a deal constructed by the party that received an 86% share of the union’s political contributions, allowing union members to walk away in far better shape than any other group. Lost in all the backslapping over this locally popular bailout is that taxpayers will lose billions unless GM stock climbs to the mid 50’s instead of the mid 20’s where it is now, something that experts agree won’t happen. The announcement that GM will soon buy back 200 million shares of its own stock from the government will result in an initial 5 billion dollar loss for taxpayers but the good news is that the government is releasing GM from restrictions on replacing the corporate jets they were ridiculed for having during the congressional hearings. Shielding the unions from the same level of pain as the other parties is widely reported to be the primary reason for the billions lost on this adventure in selectively applying the rules of bankruptcy. 

All that aside, this is an emotional rather than rational issue for many, so don’t be surprised by anything that may transpire. A case in point was the exercise in dramatic hyperbole aired on local radio by an apoplectic local attorney. I am sure his intent was to express support for the unions and the current way of doing things but it came off portraying the results of this legislation as the Grapes of Wrath revisited. This was less an attempt to inform than it was a, how dare you, scolding. I only wish the high minded critics of the Republican majority’s actions would have been just as outraged when the Democrats who controlled our federal government, with zero input from the Republican Party, rammed through a health care bill that will have thousands of times the costs and consequences of Michigan’s right to work experiment. If you need to be outraged, be outraged that neither party is above exercising unilateral power when the situation presents itself. Be outraged that neither party even respects you enough to avoid actions that amount to naked paybacks for supporters and big donors. Be outraged that members of both parties lack the will and apparently the ability to even try to do what’s in the best interest of the entire country. Be outraged because what you just witnessed was Big Government, Big Business and Big Labor pushing a few stacks of chips across the table, resulting with great predictability and little depth of thought, in many of us rushing to pick sides.  Business changes, labor changes but unfortunately we cannot wish the competition for jobs from other states and other country’s away as easily as we can march in the street shouting slogans. Time will tell if a sufficient number of Michigan citizens will get behind any effort to pretend that the economic rules of the 1950’s are still in play. It’s quite possible that too many examples of unions flexing their political muscle or contracts strangling competitiveness have become the stuff of Michigan legend and any call to arms will fall on deaf ears.