While Washington obsesses about the "fiscal cliff," there are potentially more consequential events taking place far from the halls of Congress. In a move that rivals and perhaps surpasses the decision to limit organized labor's collective bargaining powers in Wisconsin, Republican lawmakers in Michigan are expected to pass final legislation Tuesday to end the requirement that workers pay union dues or fees as a condition of their employment.
If the GOP succeeds, Michigan, home of the nation's heavily unionized auto industry, will become the 24th right-to-work state in the country -- a development that would have been unthinkable just a few years ago.
Republicans say the move would not only give current workers the freedom to choose whether to join a union and pay dues but would, more importantly, bring many, many new jobs to Michigan. Rep. Gov. Rick Snyder, who supports the bill, points out that Indiana enacted (after a long and bitter fight) the same kind of law earlier this year. "We've carefully watched what's gone on in Indiana since they passed similar legislation back in February," Snyder told Fox News' Greta van Susteren last week, "and they've seen a significant increase in the number of companies talking about [bringing] thousands of jobs to their state."
Of course, the move is not just economic. It's political, too. Democrats depend on millions -- actually, billions -- of dollars in support from the forced dues of union members. If that money supply were to dry up, or even just decrease, the Democratic Party would be in serious trouble.
Which is why President Obama just happened to discuss the situation during his campaign-style visit to the Daimler Detroit Diesel Plant in Redford, Mich., on Monday. "These so-called right-to-work laws don't have anything to do with economics -- they have everything to do with politics," Obama said. "What they're really talking about is giving you the right to work for less money."
Mark Mix, president of the National Right to Work Committee, which supports the move, says that from the president's perspective, the fight does indeed have everything to do with politics. "President Obama was the recipient of literally hundreds of millions of dollars from union officials," Mix says. "If union officials can't compel union workers to pay dues as a condition of their employment, the fees that they use for political activity would dry up very quickly."
Michigan Democrats are alternately threatening and begging Snyder to give up. Democratic Rep. Sander Levin not-very-subtly promised "endless controversy and strife," and protesters have been gearing up around the state since the GOP first took action last week.
Other Democrats are asking Snyder to veto the bill and set up a referendum on the issue in 2014. But Democrats will probably force some sort of referendum on the new law in 2014 anyway even if Snyder signs it, as expected. Why not put the new measure in place and see how it works for a couple of years?
Democrats are complaining about the speed with which Republicans are acting, but the truth is, organized labor has seen this coming for a while. Stung by the success of Gov. Scott Walker's efforts to limit collective bargaining in Wisconsin -- Walker's actions have resulted in more money, more teachers and better conditions in schools around the state -- they tried to make sure it wouldn't happen again. In Michigan, they pushed what was known as Proposal 2, which would have enshrined union collective bargaining powers in the state constitution. If Proposal 2 had passed, what state GOP lawmakers are doing now would have been literally unconstitutional.
But Proposal 2 was decisively defeated on Election Day, 58 percent to 42 percent. The path was clear for Republicans to act.
GOP lawmakers appear determined to keep going. When Levin and other congressional leaders urged caution, a spokesman for Michigan House Speaker Jase Bolger hit back at them for "trying to tell Republicans in Michigan to slow down and not do our job in Lansing while they fail to resolve the nation's fiscal cliff crisis or even approve a budget." Hard to argue with that.
For the right-to-work forces, what is happening in Michigan, like what happened in Wisconsin and Indiana before it, is the result of years of work against the system of union power and mandatory dues. It was a long time coming. "People always say this is a really tough battle, you can't win," says Mark Mix. Like the Berlin Wall, Mix says, the entrenched union structure sometimes looked unassailable. "Then one morning we woke up and guess what? We found out it wasn't nearly as strong as we thought."
Byron York, The Examiner's chief political correspondent, can be contacted at email@example.com. His column appears on Tuesday and Friday, and his stories and blogposts appear on washingtonexaminer.com.