Acton Commentary

A Lesson from Michigan: Time to End Crony Unionism


The economic woes facing America are sparking new conversations about the best way to come out of a long-term downturn. Many pundits prescribe additional government bailouts. Others support strict austerity measures to curb government spending and the growth of federal debt. And some want to continue and even expand tax cuts to help spark economic growth.

But other proposals at the various state levels are also worth serious consideration. A proper view of the relationship between the state and federal governments leaves significant areas of freedom and sovereignty for the individual states, providing our nation with varieties of approaches that can fit particular circumstances or compete with other proposals implemented in other states. This kind of policy experimentation can be particularly instructive in the case of economic policy, where hard numbers show the winners and losers.

Michigan, for instance, has long been the canary in the nation’s economic coalmine. Since the end of 2008, Michigan’s unemployment rate has been in double-digits, reaching a high of 14.9% this past January. During this time Michigan led the nation in unemployment (it was only in the last few months that Nevada replaced Michigan at the top of the list). This extended period of economic trouble in Michigan has rightly caused a period of self-reflection for the state’s policymakers and media analysts. The proposal to transition Michigan from a state dominated by government-supported labor unions into a right-to-work state is one of the most promising options currently being discussed.

In this context it is noteworthy that the Grand Rapids Press, the largest newspaper in West Michigan, has provided significant coverage of the debate over right-to-work in Michigan. The issue is part of its Michigan 10.0 series, focusing on ten major topics over ten months leading up to the election in November that have the potential to, as Press editor Paul Keep puts it, overcome “the key obstacles facing our state.”

The mere fact that the hegemony of labor unions in the state of Michigan is a serious topic of critical discussion is remarkable on its own. But the fact that the majority of Michigan residents might support the move to make Michigan a right-to-work state represents a watershed moment in the state’s history. This is, after all, a state known around the world for the Big Three, the Motor City, and the UAW. The Press commissioned a poll that asked voters the question, “Should Michigan pass a right-to-work law that means employees cannot be forced to join a labor union?” The results are surprising, to say the least. A slim majority of the respondents (51%) answered the question affirmatively, while only 27% opposed it. Now this is a single poll and a small sample size, but it does indicate the shift in public opinion about whether union membership ought to be a mandatory requirement for certain kinds of jobs.

But maybe this shift shouldn’t be all that surprising after all. Even the opponents of the right-to-work proposals admit that it has at least rhetorical appeal to the inherent rights and dignity of the worker. Where right-to-work is understood as a ban on “union shops,” in which “union dues and membership are a condition of employment,” the program resonates with basic understandings of freedom. The AP reports on the story of Peggy Mashke, who found herself one of 40,000 at-home childcare providers automatically and unknowingly enrolled as members of the UAW. Mashke and others are suing to break free from union membership, which includes mandatory contribution of union dues. As Mashke says, the fight is about the “principle” and her “constitutional rights.”

The key here is to understand that where union membership is compulsory and the unions themselves are supported by government subsidy, the rightful purpose of labor unions as recognized in Christian social thought (to protect the welfare of the workers and in so doing promote the common good) is undermined. Voluntary associations, including voluntary and free labor unions, have a critical role to play in a flourishing society. But under a mandatory system, where labor unions are free from competition and loss of potential members, it becomes too easy to subsume the promotion of worker welfare under the promotion of the welfare of the union itself. And in turn labor unions are free to promote partisan causes to an effectively captive audience and underwrite explicitly partisan political advertising. This kind of crony unionism, in which the government sanctions and promotes a compulsory union monopoly in exchange for political support, perverts both the government and the unions. Each institution has a positive role in promoting the common good, but when such economic and political interests are so intimately aligned, self-interest is substituted for the common good.

It’s one thing for a newspaper on the west side of the state, which although it has a history of organized labor movements does not have the same entrenched interests as the east side, to examine seriously the question of right-to-work. It’s quite another for the move to actually happen (neither of the leading gubernatorial candidates favor the move, and the Press editorialized in opposition to it as well).

But the discussion itself is an important one. As political commentator Rick Haglund observes, “Ending compulsory unionism has been whispered about for years. But it was rarely discussed in public forums until this year’s gubernatorial election campaign.” This discussion in Michigan signals a broader lesson about the upcoming elections across the country: the same old political and economic logic of the past is coming under increasing scrutiny. And come November it might just be time for the kind of “creative destruction” of outmoded policies and obsolete paradigms that have hampered our nation’s prosperity and flourishing.