As Union Popularity Fades, A Fight For Power Threatens Michigan

The major focus on issues involving public sector unions right now is the current teachers’ strike in Chicago. Now that the strike is in its second week, the stakes have risen on both sides and the outcome could have an impact across the nation.

While the city of Chicago has been receiving the most attention lately, Michigan is gearing up for an electoral battle that could potentially have disastrous consequences for the state, as well as the nation.

The current, contentious debate on labor unions and supposed collective bargaining rights has been ignited over a series of recent political defeats suffered by unions. These defeats have occurred most notably in Midwestern states, such as Wisconsin, where state governments have had to address collective bargaining agreements to offset fiscal concerns.

Compared to the rest of the country, Michigan has a large number of workers who are unionized. According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, Michigan had the fifth largest unionized labor force in the country in 2011.

Recent polling has shown a change in perception towards labor union issues. According to a 2011 Washington Post poll, 67 percent of Americans support the right of public workers to unionize; a separate Bloomberg poll that same year showed that “[s]ixty-four percent of respondents, including a plurality of Republicans, say public employees should have the right to bargain collectively for their wages.” These data should not be seen as an endorsement by the American people of everything public sector unions want, as polling from Wisconsin in 2012 and California in 2011 has shown a majority support for reforms to collective bargaining agreements if the situation calls for it.

What is most telling about the situation facing labor unions is how those in the labor force are voting with their feet. According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, the percentage of the workforce that is unionized has dropped to 11.8 percent in 2011, which The Detroit News says is the lowest percentage seen since the FDR administration. The decline in union membership across the country means that the labor organizations take in less revenue, resulting in fiscal problems of their own.

Michigan is a microcosm of what is happening nationwide concerning union membership. According to The Detroit News, membership within the United Auto Workers (UAW) has fallen significantly from 1.5 million in 1979 to just 380,719 members in 2011, due to the weakened automotive industry and overall economy in Michigan.

As the union presence in Michigan weakens, the state ballot initiative called the “Protect Our Jobs” measure seeks to protect unions from further deterioration. According to the pro-measure website, (which does not clarify exactly how many or what specific union organizations are supporting the initiative and who is funding its campaign ) “Protect Our Jobs” is meant to “establish the people’s rights to organize to form, join or assist unions and to bargain collectively with public or private employers regarding wages, hours and other terms and conditions of employment” and to “grant civil service employees’ collective bargaining rights” by adding a new section under Article 1 of the Michigan State constitution. Under the 3rd section of the “Protect Our Jobs” measure, it states that “no existing or future law of the State or its political subdivisions shall abridge, impair or limit the foregoing rights” if the measure passes.

Michigan Gov. Rick Snyder and Attorney General Bill Schuette had filed court papers against the “Protect Our Jobs” measure in hopes of taking it off the ballot, which the Michigan Supreme Court overruled on September 5, 2012. Schuette’s office argued that the measure is unconstitutional, because the 3rd section of the measure would alter numerous existing laws in the Michigan constitution regarding state employee’s bargaining rights. If “Protect Our Jobs” passes, unions would have power over future legislation that effects collective bargaining rights, which could tie the state’s hands when it comes to handing any possible fiscal crisis in the future.

With labor issues becoming more controversial in the last few years, unions are looking for ways to either gain more power, or at least keep the power they still have.