A generation ago Michigan (and midwestern) industrial policy faced two challenges: off shoring and increased union militancy. That legacy lives on.
Sunday, The Grand Rapids Press began its series on how to bring Michigan back, and initially, some of the solutions seem, well, old. Apparently to read the thoughts of industrialists, our problem is that of labor policy. As the comment board at the Press quickly made clear, that was understood as making Michigan a Right to Work (RTW) state. Some of this arises from the loss of a Toyota plant in Grand Rapids, a fault laid at the feet of the UAW; some part too, comes from an older history of militancy, particularly during the Yokich years. It was not just the militants at Delphi, but a longer narrative of union activity in our state. And practically speaking, it is the legacy of union pensions, and union-won healthcare — this economic overhang — that left domestic automakers with a burden.
The complaint in short, is that the unions have cost the state opportunity. Thus, no unions, more growth. Two observations however should temper this easy (too easy!) manner of thinking.
RTW the conservative drug
First, as a thought experiment, let’s assume Michigan is RTW tomorrow — a snap of the fingers. Does anything change in the perception of the State? Why no. The same viewpoints are still held. And for that matter, the economic overhang of union-won benefits remains as well. This scarcely looks like a reasonable prescription for the State’s woes. If anything it is more a backwards glance; oh, if we had only done something different back then; if only we were somewhere else then our State would not be where it is.
This is not analysis but an exercise in wishful thinking. Conservative economics as a drug.
Longing for the return of the buffalo
There is also a second mistake made in RTW, a more substantive if perhaps more subtle. The advocates of RTW as a tool for economic rebound have are making an assumption that the jobs Michigan needs are the sort that would otherwise be unionized. RTW would free manufacturers of financial burdens, so making them more likely to come. In short the path to Michigan’s recovery is the restoration of its manufacturing glory, just as it was in the old days, only this time without unions. Once the buffalo roamed the plains, and if we do the right dance they will then return.
The idea that Michigan’s future lies in this cluster of unionized machining and heavy manufacturing flies in the face of economic facts, such as the 200,000 jobs shed by GM alone in this decade. Or for that matter, the news of the restructuring of the U.S. manufacturing economy: different industries are now on the growth curve, and old line companies like Dow Chemical revamp their lines away from the traditional to the specialty.
Moreover only one in six of all workers in manufacturing belong to a union. Add to this the direct experience that the new jobs are overwhelmingly in non-unionnized industries and RTW is a moot point in terms of economic development.
It’s not just the Chamber
Of course, the business community is not the only player longing for “the return of the buffalo.” The bitter loss of plants to Mexico, or worse to financial restructuring, has left workers looking for some one to blame. Michigan’s problem in this light? All this off-shoring. One can hear it in union halls, but also in the questions put to Jim Zarroli at Monday’s World Affairs Council lecture.
Although the content is different, the structure of the argument remains the same: if only we had done x, Michigan would still be standing. And if we could do x now, then we could return to our glory. Yes, some day the buffalo will return.
However deeply such views are held, however, the future lies elsewhere. It is imperative that we become alert to what those decisions are that can in fact rebuild our state.