If Michigan Gov. Rick Snyder signs right-to-work legislation into law today, he will become the latest Republican to pin a giant target on his own back. But after two years of heated legislative battles, it's unlikely a wave of right-to-work legislation will sweep the country. Simply put, labor has made its point.
As controversy over the legislation -- which would end requirements that certain employees must pay union dues -- has reached a zenith in Michigan, other Republican governors seeking re-election in 2014 have signaled a distinct unwillingness to follow Snyder's lead.
Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker is maintaining his position that right-to-work legislation would be too divisive to pursue. Ohio Gov. John Kasich told reporters on Monday that right-to-work legislation wasn't crucial to his agenda, and that he hasn't been following the developments in Michigan. And Pennsylvania Gov. Tom Corbett said Monday that his state legislature doesn't have the will to pass a right-to-work law.
"There is not much of a movement to do it and lot of it has to do with the politics at the local level, at the county level and at the state level," Corbett said during an appearance on WPHT-AM radio in Philadelphia. "Until I see a strong will to get legislation passed, we have a lot of other things that we have to get passed."
That Snyder got caught up in a feud with organized labor is something of a surprise. The first-term Republican ran for office in 2010 as a technocrat rather than a partisan, a candidate more interested in best practices than ideological fights. Right-to-work legislation was never on his agenda; the law that sits on his desk was pushed by Republicans in the state legislature, a group far more conservative than Snyder.
Now, in a state in which 28 percent of voters say they live in a union household, Snyder finds himself between the proverbial rock and a hard place. Signing the legislation would endear him to Republicans and help him avoid a primary, but Democrats hope it would diminish his apolitical image and give powerful Michigan unions an added incentive to oust him in 2014.
"It's not just pissing off unions, he's really undermining one of the central underpinnings of his election," said Eddie Vale, a spokesman for Workers Voice, a union-backed outside group helping to organize opposition to the Michigan bill. "He's blowing his image as a technocrat."
Walker, Kasich and Corbett are more traditional politicians, and all three governors have been stung by battles with organized labor. Unions spearheaded an effort to recall Walker after he signed a ban on collective bargaining into law in 2011. Labor backers led a push to overturn a similar collective bargaining law in Ohio that same year, a battle that took a toll on Kasich's approval ratings. And Corbett favors privatizing Pennsylvania's liquor stores, a move the United Food and Commercial Workers oppose, though that legislation hasn't invited the same public fight yet.
"You see all of the governors who are up for re-election and the governors who have been more out there than Snyder are doing the smart thing and staying away from this," Vale said.
While labor unions have shrunk nationally, they remain politically potent in the Midwest and the Rust Belt. Voters in union households made up 21 percent of the electorate in Pennsylvania and Wisconsin and 22 percent in Ohio, all higher than the national average of 18 percent.
Recent polling suggests Snyder is in better position than some of his fellow Republicans. A survey released last week by EPIC-MRA, a Michigan-based polling firm, showed a narrow 51 percent majority viewed Snyder's job performance positively, while 48 percent said they had a negative impression. The same poll, of 600 registered voters conducted November 27-29, showed Snyder leading a generic Democrat by a slim 41 percent to 36 percent margin. Michigan voters were evenly divided over right-to-work legislation, the poll showed.