Commentary Magazine


Topic: right to work

The Twilight of the Unions

Unions had a really lousy year in 2012. Governor Scott Walker was retained in office despite an all-out union effort to have him recalled. Indiana and Michigan (!) became right-to-work states.

And now the Bureau of Labor Statistics reports in its annual survey that union membership fell by 400,000 last year, despite an increase of 2.4 million in the total number of jobs. Today, only 11.3 percent of the labor force is unionized, the least since 1916, when the rate was 11.2 percent. But that understates the decline because in 1916 only private-sector workers were unionized. Today, just 6.6 percent of the private workforce is unionized. In 1953, about one-third of American workers were union members. It was 25 percent as recently as the 1980s.

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Unions had a really lousy year in 2012. Governor Scott Walker was retained in office despite an all-out union effort to have him recalled. Indiana and Michigan (!) became right-to-work states.

And now the Bureau of Labor Statistics reports in its annual survey that union membership fell by 400,000 last year, despite an increase of 2.4 million in the total number of jobs. Today, only 11.3 percent of the labor force is unionized, the least since 1916, when the rate was 11.2 percent. But that understates the decline because in 1916 only private-sector workers were unionized. Today, just 6.6 percent of the private workforce is unionized. In 1953, about one-third of American workers were union members. It was 25 percent as recently as the 1980s.

Perhaps the most interesting statistic in the BLS report is union membership broken down by age. Of workers 55-64 years of age, 14.9 percent are union members. For those 16-24, a mere 4.2 percent are unionized. That, to put it mildly, does not bode well for the future of the union movement.

The basic reason for this now-60-year-long decline, of course, is that unions are economic dinosaurs. They arose in the late 19th century at the same time as unprecedentedly large industrial and transportation corporations came into being. The corporations had enormous economic and political power and the unorganized workers had virtually none. Unions helped to redress the balance.

With the Wagner Act of 1935, which put the power of the federal government behind the union movement, the golden age of unions began. It didn’t last long. Greatly increased educational opportunities after World War II and the digital revolution that began around 1970 have eroded the number of workers who need unions to bargain for them and the number of jobs available to unskilled and semi-skilled workers.

But the laws governing corporate-union relations had their last major overhaul in 1947 with the Taft-Hartley Act in a completely different economic universe. The unions’ power with the Democratic Party (they are the No. 1 funder of the party and its candidates) has prevented any modernization, giving them disproportionate political clout. But even that is fading. The unions were unable to get “card check,” which would have ended secret elections in union organizing drives, through Congress when the Democrats had a lock on both houses of Congress in the first two years of the Obama administration.

So while unions, like dinosaurs, are still very powerful, like dinosaurs, they are going extinct.

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Labor Unions, Violence, and America’s Political Religion

When he was only 28 years old, Abraham Lincoln delivered an address before the Young Men’s Lyceum of Springfield, Illinois.

The speech included Lincoln’s plea to avoid what he called the “mobocratic spirit.” He warned about an “ill-omen amongst us”–which he identified as, among other things, the “growing disposition to substitute the wild and furious passion, in lieu of the sober judgment of Courts.” 

In fact, the Young Men’s Lyceum speech deals in large part with the issue of passion vs. reason. Lincoln, like the Founders, had a deep insight into human nature, acknowledging that “jealousy, envy, and avarice” are “incident to our nature.” The basest principles of our nature, he said, “were either made to lie dormant, or to become the active agents in the advancement of the noblest of cause — that of establishing and maintaining civil and religious liberty” (meaning they were directed exclusively against the British nation). But at the end of his speech, Lincoln issues this warning:

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When he was only 28 years old, Abraham Lincoln delivered an address before the Young Men’s Lyceum of Springfield, Illinois.

The speech included Lincoln’s plea to avoid what he called the “mobocratic spirit.” He warned about an “ill-omen amongst us”–which he identified as, among other things, the “growing disposition to substitute the wild and furious passion, in lieu of the sober judgment of Courts.” 

In fact, the Young Men’s Lyceum speech deals in large part with the issue of passion vs. reason. Lincoln, like the Founders, had a deep insight into human nature, acknowledging that “jealousy, envy, and avarice” are “incident to our nature.” The basest principles of our nature, he said, “were either made to lie dormant, or to become the active agents in the advancement of the noblest of cause — that of establishing and maintaining civil and religious liberty” (meaning they were directed exclusively against the British nation). But at the end of his speech, Lincoln issues this warning:

Passion has helped us; but can do so no more. It will in future be our enemy. Reason, cold, calculating, unimpassioned reason, must furnish all the materials for our future support and defence. Let those materials be moulded into general intelligence, sound morality and, in particular, a reverence for the constitution and laws. This must become America’s “political religion.”

Which brings us to Michigan, where Governor Rick Snyder signed a law declaring that workers will no longer be required to pay union fees as a condition of employment.

National Review offers a summary of the reaction to the new Michigan law: “Democratic legislator Douglas Geiss declared on the floor of the state house: ‘There will be blood. There will be repercussions.’ And indeed there were: Knife-wielding partisans brought down a tent on representatives from the conservative group Americans for Prosperity — women and children among them — and roughed up bystanders. Fox News contributor Steven Crowder was beaten by the same mob, punched repeatedly in the face.” In addition, Teamsters president Jimmy Hoffa declared there would be a “civil war” in Michigan. (A video of some of this can be seen here, courtesy of HotAir.com. And on the left, it’s being said that “getting hit in the face is a hazard of inserting yourself in the middle of an argument between billionaire-funded know-nothing ideologues and people whose livelihoods and stability are being threatened by the insatiable greed of the super-rich and the blind extremism of their wooden-headed political allies.”) 

Conservative commentators have pointed out that Michigan is merely the most recent link in a chain of events, from the response to Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker’s decision to end collective bargaining rights for public sector unions (where Walker was often compared to Hitler, Mubarak, and Mussolini) to the Occupy Wall Street protests (which were characterized by sexual assault, arson, and vandalism, among other things).

My point isn’t that what’s happening today is anything like the scale of what Lincoln was referring to (which included murders committed by pro-slavery mobs). But the confrontations and rage, the acts of intimidation and violence we’ve seen in places from Lansing to Zuccotti Park and several other cities are troubling enough.

We all know passions can be inflamed in political disputes. What’s crucial is to respect the rights of others even when we disagree with them. Those who don’t–those who substitute wild and furious passion for cold, calculating, unimpassioned reason–are engaged in something destructive.

We are nowhere close to a pre-civil war situation. We’re even a long distance removed from the violent protests of the late 1960s and early 1970s. But our divisions are deep enough. And when differences in policies lead to screaming matches, shoving matches, provocations and fist fights, it’s not a sign of civic health. (Liberals might be somewhat more attuned to this point if the actions we’re seeing at union rallies had happened at Tea Party gatherings.)

A “mobocratic spirit” is at odds with America’s political religion. And it would be nice, and perhaps even helpful, if the president reminded his supporters and allies of that from time to time.

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McGovern’s Futile Warning on Unions

The extent to which George McGovern, who died in late October, was identified with American liberalism itself can be seen in headlines of his various obituaries. CNN’s headline called him an “unabashed liberal voice”; PBS went with “Liberal Icon”; the New York Times chose “Prairie Liberal” (though the online edition dropped the word “prairie”); and the Nation called him a “Touchstone of Liberalism.” The Nation obit, written by John Nichols, proclaimed McGovern, the 1972 Democratic presidential nominee, “the most progressive nominee ever selected by the Democratic Party.”

McGovern, then, possessed unimpeachable liberal credentials. Yet four years before McGovern passed, the liberal blog site Firedoglake was ready to send him packing, and used the occasion to call McGovern perhaps the nastiest insult in the liberal lexicon: “Wal-Mart Lover.” What could have prompted such spite? McGovern, though a committed liberal through and through, was concerned about the growing and coercive power of unions. He felt the need to speak out against the Democrats’ proposed anti-choice legislation, card-check. McGovern chastised his party for its extremism in the Wall Street Journal:

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The extent to which George McGovern, who died in late October, was identified with American liberalism itself can be seen in headlines of his various obituaries. CNN’s headline called him an “unabashed liberal voice”; PBS went with “Liberal Icon”; the New York Times chose “Prairie Liberal” (though the online edition dropped the word “prairie”); and the Nation called him a “Touchstone of Liberalism.” The Nation obit, written by John Nichols, proclaimed McGovern, the 1972 Democratic presidential nominee, “the most progressive nominee ever selected by the Democratic Party.”

McGovern, then, possessed unimpeachable liberal credentials. Yet four years before McGovern passed, the liberal blog site Firedoglake was ready to send him packing, and used the occasion to call McGovern perhaps the nastiest insult in the liberal lexicon: “Wal-Mart Lover.” What could have prompted such spite? McGovern, though a committed liberal through and through, was concerned about the growing and coercive power of unions. He felt the need to speak out against the Democrats’ proposed anti-choice legislation, card-check. McGovern chastised his party for its extremism in the Wall Street Journal:

The key provision of EFCA is a change in the mechanism by which unions are formed and recognized. Instead of a private election with a secret ballot overseen by an impartial federal board, union organizers would simply need to gather signatures from more than 50% of the employees in a workplace or bargaining unit, a system known as “card-check.” There are many documented cases where workers have been pressured, harassed, tricked and intimidated into signing cards that have led to mandatory payment of dues.

Under EFCA, workers could lose the freedom to express their will in private, the right to make a decision without anyone peering over their shoulder, free from fear of reprisal.

Anyone who doubts that such “reprisals” were and are a serious danger might have been convinced by what they saw yesterday in Michigan, where Governor Rick Snyder signed right-to-work legislation, which allows people to work without forced unionization as a condition of their employment, into law. Earlier in the day, the Democratic contingent in the state legislature promised violence if the bill went through. The bill did, and Democratic violence and death threats from unions and their Democratic allies emerged immediately. Union leader Jimmy Hoffa then went on CNN and promised more “war.”

It is a testament to the disappearance of moderate Democrats that George McGovern was concerned enough about the party’s growing anti-Democratic extremism to speak out. That aforementioned blog post at Firedoglake made it explicitly clear that “McGovern is the one who is out of step.” Union coercion, according to the left, is mainstream; moderation was long gone.

This has long been a challenge for modern liberalism: how to keep the violence that is always brimming just below the surface of leftist protest movements from getting out of control. But in order to do that successfully, the Democratic Party must have leaders who, like McGovern, are willing to take a stand against it. You’ll search in vain for such leaders today; the White House wouldn’t condemn either the threats of violence or the actual violence yesterday. Perhaps they didn’t want to draw attention to President Obama’s appearance at a pro-union rally the day before.

Democratic leaders might want to admit–even if just to themselves–that McGovern was right. McGovern might have recognized recent events as the natural outgrowth of the unchecked extremism of a Democratic Party too liberal for its “liberal icon.”

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Leftists Claim AFP Tore Down its Own Tent in Michigan

This is why it’s absurd when people bemoan the insularity of the conservative media, as if this is a phenomenon found exclusively on the right. The left-wing blog world comes up with insane theories all the time, and the latest one–that the Americans for Prosperity tent was not ripped down by union thugs in Michigan, but actually by AFP supporters–is a classic:

Yet this overwhelming evidence has not stopped the Lansing Truthers from claiming this all is a Koch conspiracy.  Here are Hamsher’s updates to her original post, noting that one of Firedoglake’s own bloggers was spreading the conspiracy theory:

Update: Marcy Wheeler reports that “witnesses say the Americans for Prosperity people were trying to provoke union members to violence, and witnesses reportedly saw AFP people loosening the ropes on the tents so they would come down.”

Update II: Chris Savage from Eclectablog says that Americans for Prosperity tore down their own tent, and promises video soon:

Ed Schultz of MSNBC is on board helping spread the conspiracy.

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This is why it’s absurd when people bemoan the insularity of the conservative media, as if this is a phenomenon found exclusively on the right. The left-wing blog world comes up with insane theories all the time, and the latest one–that the Americans for Prosperity tent was not ripped down by union thugs in Michigan, but actually by AFP supporters–is a classic:

Yet this overwhelming evidence has not stopped the Lansing Truthers from claiming this all is a Koch conspiracy.  Here are Hamsher’s updates to her original post, noting that one of Firedoglake’s own bloggers was spreading the conspiracy theory:

Update: Marcy Wheeler reports that “witnesses say the Americans for Prosperity people were trying to provoke union members to violence, and witnesses reportedly saw AFP people loosening the ropes on the tents so they would come down.”

Update II: Chris Savage from Eclectablog says that Americans for Prosperity tore down their own tent, and promises video soon:

Ed Schultz of MSNBC is on board helping spread the conspiracy.

One left-wing blogger (h/t NiceDeb) wrote that he “knew right away [the tent collapse] was likely a false flag.” Why? Because the labor movement is known for being so peace-loving and polite?

What’s most infuriating about this is that the violence in Michigan is real. It’s on video. And yet it’s not going to get a fraction of the media attention that mere speculations about Tea Party violence received in 2010. There aren’t going to be any Time magazine covers depicting union “rage,” or news specials about the rise of left-wing extremism. Media bias isn’t just about what they do report, it’s about what they don’t report. And unfortunately, it’s hard to imagine this will get the attention it deserves.

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Attacks on Conservatives in Michigan Union Battle Escalate

Yesterday I discussed the devolution of union protests in Michigan into violence. Soon after that post, the “reported” violence against a conservative activist was confirmed when Steven Crowder posted video of the exchanges on YouTube. The video shows Crowder being punched by a man wearing union paraphernalia and–unfortunately for a man who likely wanted to remain anonymous–a satin jacket with his name embroidered on the front. Popular radio host Dana Loesch offered a reward for the identities of the men responsible for the attack on Crowder as well as the men responsible for cutting down the tent belonging to Americans for Prosperity, who were on the scene to applaud the right-to-work legislation’s passage.  

The video that Crowder posted shows multiple altercations with union members and supporters and every punch appears to be thrown while Crowder wasn’t looking. Death threats were screamed after one attack and in one clip, Crowder is pulled by the collar from behind and punched before escaping the grasp of his attacker. While union supporters claim that the video is edited and that the attacks were provoked, Crowder has promised that longer and unedited footage will appear on the Sean Hannity show tonight and tweeted yesterday, “Even if you hate me, nothing I could have done warranted being suckerpunched and threatened with murder.”

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Yesterday I discussed the devolution of union protests in Michigan into violence. Soon after that post, the “reported” violence against a conservative activist was confirmed when Steven Crowder posted video of the exchanges on YouTube. The video shows Crowder being punched by a man wearing union paraphernalia and–unfortunately for a man who likely wanted to remain anonymous–a satin jacket with his name embroidered on the front. Popular radio host Dana Loesch offered a reward for the identities of the men responsible for the attack on Crowder as well as the men responsible for cutting down the tent belonging to Americans for Prosperity, who were on the scene to applaud the right-to-work legislation’s passage.  

The video that Crowder posted shows multiple altercations with union members and supporters and every punch appears to be thrown while Crowder wasn’t looking. Death threats were screamed after one attack and in one clip, Crowder is pulled by the collar from behind and punched before escaping the grasp of his attacker. While union supporters claim that the video is edited and that the attacks were provoked, Crowder has promised that longer and unedited footage will appear on the Sean Hannity show tonight and tweeted yesterday, “Even if you hate me, nothing I could have done warranted being suckerpunched and threatened with murder.”

Predictably, the mainstream media has been silent on the attacks on Crowder and the AFP tent, barely discussing the protests that crippled Lansing yesterday that were attended by so many of the state’s teachers that two entire school districts were forced to close, sending parents into a frenzy to find childcare. At Fox News, the Media Research Center’s Dan Gainor writes:

ABC, CBS and NBC covered the protests but only ABC made mention of police having to deal with protesters. None of them mentioned the attack on Crowder or showed the videos of that attack and the thugs tearing down a tent with people in it, both widely available on the Internet hours before the evening news show broadcast. No network quoted Teamsters head Jimmy Hoffa predicting “civil war” between lawmakers and union members.

NBC anchor Brian Williams referred to it all meekly as “a boisterous day in the state capital.”

The contemptible liberal website Gawker even asked, “Do We Really Have to Condemn the Union Protestor Who Punched Fox News Comedian Steven Crowder?” (Spoiler: The answer was no.) 

On Twitter and Fox News last night, Crowder challenged his attackers to a MMA-sanctioned fight, where the proceeds of the winner would go to the cause of their choice. This is where he loses me. The attacks on Crowder and AFP were serious and indicate an increased comfort with violence from supposed “peace-loving” progressives who believe “the ends justify the means.” As conservatives, a group still licking our wounds after defeat in November, it behooves us to be above the violent tactics of the left; we should be trying this case not in a wrestling ring, but in the court of public opinion, or quite literally in court. Great efforts have been made to identify those responsible, and that information should be handed over to the proper authorities.

Conservatives can’t in good conscience and with a straight face decry progressive violence while advocating violence as a solution to this dispute. While an MMA battle might be good for one comedian’s career prospects, it likely would turn conservative complaints against union and progressive violence into a laughingstock, and reinforce the left’s claim that conservatives went looking for a (literal) fight. Given the escalating nature of violent and destructive behavior from the left in the last year, that should be the story conservatives are talking about today. 

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The Age of the GOP Governors

Yesterday a landmark event happened in Michigan. The Wolverine State–which is not simply home of the United Auto Workers but in many respects is the birthplace of the modern labor movement–has become the 24th state to ban compulsory union fees. Workers will no longer be required to pay union fees as a condition of employment. And if history–and other states, like Indiana–is any guide, this action will not only grant workers freedom but also attract new businesses to Michigan. (Michigan desperately needs this, since it has the sixth-highest state jobless rate in America at 9.1 percent.) 

This move came after unions once again overshot, having tried to enshrine collective bargaining into the state constitution (through Proposition 2).  

“Everybody has this image of Michigan as a labor state,” Bill Ballenger, the editor of Inside Michigan Politics, told the New York Times. “But organized labor has been losing clout, and the Republicans saw an opportunity, and now the chickens are coming home to roost.”

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Yesterday a landmark event happened in Michigan. The Wolverine State–which is not simply home of the United Auto Workers but in many respects is the birthplace of the modern labor movement–has become the 24th state to ban compulsory union fees. Workers will no longer be required to pay union fees as a condition of employment. And if history–and other states, like Indiana–is any guide, this action will not only grant workers freedom but also attract new businesses to Michigan. (Michigan desperately needs this, since it has the sixth-highest state jobless rate in America at 9.1 percent.) 

This move came after unions once again overshot, having tried to enshrine collective bargaining into the state constitution (through Proposition 2).  

“Everybody has this image of Michigan as a labor state,” Bill Ballenger, the editor of Inside Michigan Politics, told the New York Times. “But organized labor has been losing clout, and the Republicans saw an opportunity, and now the chickens are coming home to roost.”

This victory was important, then, both substantively and politically. And it brought into sharper focus the best news about the GOP these days: Governors. Despite a very disappointing showing at the federal level in November, at the state level things are quite encouraging. Republicans now control 30 governorships–the highest number for either party in a dozen years. (Democrats control 19 governorships and Rhode Island has an independent governor.) 

Moreover, many of the brightest stars in the conservative constellation are governors–people like Mitch Daniels (Indiana), Bob McDonnell (Virginia), Scott Walker (Wisconsin), Bobby Jindal (Louisiana), Chris Christie (New Jersey), John Kasich (Ohio), Susana Martinez (New Mexico), and Nikki Haley (South Carolina), as well as former Florida governor Jeb Bush.

These men and women are models for governance: conservative, reform-minded, growth-oriented, and interested in what works. They tend to be principled but not ideological. They’re problem solvers, they have to balance their budgets, and they are generally popular in their states. As a general rule they practice politics in a way that doesn’t deepen mistrust or cynicism among the citizens of their states.

This period reminds me a bit of the 1990s, when many of the best reforms (in areas like welfare and education) were coming from governors. That’s certainly the case today. And it’s why many on the right were hoping that in 2012 the best of the current class, Mitch Daniels, had run for president of the United States (he opted for becoming, starting next year, president of Purdue University). For now, Republicans could hardly do better than to turn their lonely eyes to state capitals throughout the country.

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Michigan Right-to-Work Law Brings Out the Worst in Union Supporters

Earlier this afternoon, lawmakers in Michigan approved right-to-work legislation for public employees 58-51, sending the bill to the Republican governor, Rick Snyder, who has been promoting the legislation and is expected to sign the bill into law. Opponents of the legislation have accused Snyder of attempting to “bust the unions.” Today on Fox News Snyder answered his critics, explaining:

If you look at unions in Michigan, they’ve done a lot of great things in our state. We’re the center of the labor movement going back in the last century. In the ’20s, ’30s, ’40s, people flocked to join the unions, because they were helping with working conditions, wages, all those things. And people chose to join a union… People used to choose to join a union. Now, I don’t believe it’s appropriate to say ‘just to keep your job, you have to pay dues and be a union member.’ So basically this creates an environment where people can say they’re choosing to join a union because the unions put a value proposition to make it worth while. And if the union’s not providing a value, someone should be forced to choose. So I view this as pro-worker legislation.

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Earlier this afternoon, lawmakers in Michigan approved right-to-work legislation for public employees 58-51, sending the bill to the Republican governor, Rick Snyder, who has been promoting the legislation and is expected to sign the bill into law. Opponents of the legislation have accused Snyder of attempting to “bust the unions.” Today on Fox News Snyder answered his critics, explaining:

If you look at unions in Michigan, they’ve done a lot of great things in our state. We’re the center of the labor movement going back in the last century. In the ’20s, ’30s, ’40s, people flocked to join the unions, because they were helping with working conditions, wages, all those things. And people chose to join a union… People used to choose to join a union. Now, I don’t believe it’s appropriate to say ‘just to keep your job, you have to pay dues and be a union member.’ So basically this creates an environment where people can say they’re choosing to join a union because the unions put a value proposition to make it worth while. And if the union’s not providing a value, someone should be forced to choose. So I view this as pro-worker legislation.

As they did in Wisconsin, teachers have decided to prioritize their union over the well-being of the children in their classrooms, deciding to “sick-out” enough to warrant the closure of entire school districts. Predictably, given the likelihood that this bill could seriously hamper unions’ ability to function, the battle in Lansing is getting nasty. On the floor of the Michigan House of Representatives, State Representative Douglas Geiss threatened “there will be blood.” The Twitter account for the Michigan Democrats tweeted the quote, and a few hours later, after actual violence started to unfold, the tweet was deleted. A screen shot is visible below: 

 

The atmosphere in Lansing is tense, as right-to-work friendly organizations like Americans for Prosperity have been targeted by groups of yelling union members, many clad in boots and hardhats, tearing down tents and reportedly punching a conservative activist. The actions of these union members and their supporters didn’t stop the Michigan House from passing the bill, nor are they likely to stop Snyder from signing it, but they may give Michiganders pause.

Will Michiganders with a long history in the labor movement decide that the government freeing workers from mandated union dues is akin to the Battle of the Overpass? In the battle, guards for the Ford Motor Company violently beat UAW leafleters attempting to organize car factories in the Detroit area. Michigan voters may not be familiar with the 1937 incident, but it’s easy to see who in the 2012 labor movement have devolved into violence out of a desire to hamper the rights of their opponents.

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Right-to-Work Law Advances in Michigan

Bills that would make Michigan the 24th state to adopt a right-to-work law have passed the Michigan Senate and House, both in Republican hands. If the bills are reconciled, as seems likely, the legislation will be signed by the Republican governor.

This is a remarkable event. Michigan is the fifth-most unionized state in the country, with 19.2 percent of the workforce. The United Auto Workers, born in Michigan, has been a major player in state politics for decades.

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Bills that would make Michigan the 24th state to adopt a right-to-work law have passed the Michigan Senate and House, both in Republican hands. If the bills are reconciled, as seems likely, the legislation will be signed by the Republican governor.

This is a remarkable event. Michigan is the fifth-most unionized state in the country, with 19.2 percent of the workforce. The United Auto Workers, born in Michigan, has been a major player in state politics for decades.

But the Michigan economy is doing very poorly, relative to the country as a whole, with unemployment at 9.1 percent. Only five states are doing worse. The state’s biggest city, Detroit, is a poster child for urban decay, on the brink of bankruptcy thanks to decades of spectacularly corrupt government and unaffordable pension agreements with its unionized workers.

Right-to-work states have been overwhelmingly concentrated in the South, the mountain West, and the northern plain states. But this year Indiana became the first state in the Midwest industrial heartland to adopt a right-to-work law. Should Michigan do so as well, it will be a powerful indication that union power is in serious and probably permanent decline. No longer obliged to belong to a union in order to work at a unionized company or government, many workers will simply stop paying the substantial dues unions charge. And since, as California’s Jesse Unruh explained decades ago, “money is the mother’s milk of politics,” that means union political power will diminish accordingly.

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