The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

“Right to work” push guarantees all out war in Michigan

The “right to work” battle in Michigan may not be over quite yet.

Top Democrats in the Michigan Congressional delegation just wrapped up their meeting with Governor Rick Snyder, during which they urged him in no uncertain terms: If you go forward with “right to work” legislation, you’ll be consigning the state to years of discord and division. They urged him to consider vetoing the legislation or postponing it until the next session — or even agreeing to subject it to referendum.

According to Dems who were on the call, Snyder told them he would “seriously” take into account their objections — which they took as a genuine indication of possible willingness, for now, to reconsider.

“The Governor listened, and he told us he would seriously consider our concerns,” Senator Carl Levin said on a conference call with reporters.

The tenor of the meeting, which participants described as urgent and intense, underscores the gravity of the situation — not just for Democrats, but for the state itself. Dems told Snyder that forging ahead with “right to work” legislation risked undermining the progress in labor-management relations in the state and could create a situation similar to Wisconsin, where an ongoing battle over collective bargaining tore the state apart for over a year.

Dem Rep. Sander Levin told reporters that he pointedly informed the Governor that moving forward would guarantee “endless controversy and strife.” Another Congressional Democrat on the call added that “this will be a hugely contentious issue for many years unless the Governor steps back from the brink.” A third said he’d told the Governor that “this is one of the most important decisions he’ll ever make.”

Dems also argued to Snyder that the “right to work” push is substantively unnecessary. They pointed out that workers are currently not required to join a union — and that they simply wanted to preserve the right of unions to collect fees from non-members to pay for wage and benefit negotiations that actually benefit them. They lamented that Snyder didn’t appear to understand these basics, and repeatedly denounced his legislation as enshrining “the right to work for less.”

All of this may not be hyperbole — which goes right to the heart of what makes this situation so attention-grabbing and urgent. To hear these Democrats tell it, this battle goes right to the core of Michigan’s identity, as the birthplace of the United Auto Workers, and if it is successful, could be a truly debilitating blow to organized labor. As Matthew Yglesias put it recently:

In political terms this really does seem like the tipping point. For a long time the United States has existed as a “house divided” in this regard. Democrats in states like Virginia and Nevada didn’t seriously try to repeal right-to-work laws, while Republicans in the northeast and midwest didn’t try to implement them. But if right-to-work can pass in Michigan, then why shouldn’t Republicans press for it in Wisconsin or Ohio or Pennsylvania?

Indeed, if anything, in symbolic and practical terms, this very well may be worse than Wisconsin. A lot worse. No wonder Dems are vowing all out war.