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Meet the Man who is Trying to Save Michigan

GOP governor Rick Snyder passed conservative reforms, signs right-to-work legislation in union stronghold

Rick Snyder / AP
• December 11, 2012 7:59 pm

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Michigan businessman Rick Snyder took right-to-work proposals off the table when seeking the Republican nomination for governor in 2009.

Just three years later as governor, he signed into law a bill that will end the practice of mandatory union membership and make Michigan the 24th state to pass such laws.

Snyder’s seeming about-face represents a change in circumstances, rather than a policy evolution akin to President Barack Obama’s position on gay marriage, according to Vinnie Vernuccio, a labor expert at the conservative Mackinac Center for Public Policy.

"He has always been consistent in saying that he would sign right-to-work legislation but has been insistent that it was not on his agenda," he said. "The impetus behind this was Indiana becoming a right-to-work state and adding 40,000 jobs during a time when we lost thousands of jobs."

Indiana became the 23rd right-to-work state in the nation and the first in the Rust Belt in February. It gained an immediate advantage in attracting business by freeing up companies from onerous union rules and dues, according to Vernuccio.

"Snyder said that we need to be more effective because we now have a right-to-work state on our border that is more attractive to employers than Michigan is," Vernuccio said. "That put him over the top."

Snyder has pursued a reform agenda since beating Democrat Virg Bernero 58-40 in the 2010 governor’s race. He pushed for increased teacher contributions to their badly underfunded pension system, revamped the state corporate tax rate, and appointed temporary emergency managers to take over Detroit. Right-to-work was not on the agenda.

Snyder, enjoying majorities in the state legislature, could ill-afford the political showdown that Republican Gov. Scott Walker faced in Wisconsin over public sector unionism, according to Gary Wolfram, president of Hillsdale Policy Group, a taxation and public policy consultancy.

"He originally didn’t want to get engaged in a major political fight, while he had other, more pressing issues on his agenda, in particular, getting rid of Michigan’s business tax system, reviving Detroit and other failing cities, and reforming the pension system," Wolfram said.

Detroit sat on the brink of bankruptcy when Snyder assumed office. The state had lost nearly 850,000 jobs over the past decade. He achieved many of the reforms he outlined on the campaign trail within his first two years in office without igniting major political disruption in Lansing.

That political strategy reflects Snyder’s background as a business innovator and accountant. He had never held political office before moving into the governor’s mansion in 2011, but he had spent the better part of 20 years managing Gateway into the Fortune 200 at the height of the tech boom and investing in medical and technology companies.

Snyder stayed behind to launch two venture capital funds that turned over eight-figure deals when Gateway decided to move its operations from Michigan to San Diego.

"His background is being an executive in the private sector: you deal with the immediate issues first," Wolfram said. "Once you’ve dealt with those, the tax issue and Detroit and fiscal problems and pensions, then at some point you can deal with more contentious, long term issues."

Prior to the right-to-work controversy, Snyder’s conservative reforms may not have caused too much controversy in the state capital, but that has not stopped unions from pushing back against the reform measures.

Unions sought to amend the state constitution to enshrine collective bargaining rights and the forced unionization of family members who take care of disabled relatives. The ballot initiatives lost by large margins, with opposition attracting more votes than Barack Obama. Democrats hoped the union campaign would draw positive attention to the labor movement in Michigan.

Bob McCann, spokesman for Democratic Senate Leader and prospective gubernatorial candidate Gretchen Whitmer, told the Washington Free Beacon that the union’s efforts to pass those constitutional amendments would keep right-to-work off the table.

"[The amendments] raised the issue of what’s been happening," he said. "I hope that just by that issue being out there makes the people realize that our workers are the driving force behind our economy and Michigan is no place for right-to-work legislation."

The amendments "had the opposite effect," according to Wolfram.

"The fact that the unions went ahead and brought the right-to-work onto the table with the ballot proposal, that was the instigator," he said. "The fight’s already being waged you might as well get it done."

Right-to-work has proved just as divisive as Snyder predicted. Thousands of union members flooded the state capitol on Tuesday, as right-to-work became the law of the land. The protests were loud and at times violent.

Vernuccio predicts Snyder will have the opportunity to quell the dissent.

"The proof is in the pudding," he said. "Michigan has a long history as a labor stronghold but bringing home Michigan workers who have sought work in other states, creating economic opportunity—that will win support from voters."