Battle lines being drawn in Michigan

I’m not sure how many people realize it yet, but …

This year is clearly shaping up to be one of the most fiercely partisan in Michigan political history -- and I’m not even talking about any of the races involving candidates.

Completely apart from the personalities, it seems likely that there will be two enormously consequential and venomously divisive issues on the November ballot. Plus, a third issue -- what to do about Detroit’s financial mess -- is bound to preoccupy us all.

Here’s a preview of the landscape ahead:

  • Michigan Forward, a coalition of labor unions, Democrats and progressives, this month submitted nearly 227,000 signatures aimed at putting the new Emergency Manager law (Public Act 4 of 2011) to an up-or-down vote in November. The law, passed last year, gave governor-appointed emergency managers unprecedented powers to make drastic changes, including overturning labor contracts.

If the signatures pass muster and the referendum is certified for the ballot, the vote will pit Republicans and those whose biggest concern is local financial stability against most Democrats, organized labor and minorities, who point out that all cities and school districts currently under EMs are majority African American.

  • Nor is that likely to be the only major issue on the ballot. A broad coalition of unions last week announced a petition drive aimed at embedding in Michigan’s Constitution a measure guaranteeing collective bargaining rights for all workers -- public sector as well as private. Led by the United Auto Workers, the group We Are The People was formed in response to persistent agitation among some Republicans to pass a right-to-work measure that would not require workers in unionized companies to be union members.

Zack Pohl, spokesman for We The People, says the unions are willing to spend whatever is needed to get the constitutional amendment certified and passed. It’s absolutely certain they will have opponents who will do their best to fight them.

Imagine what the economic development folks from Indiana -- a state which just passed Right to Work -- will say about that when competing with Michigan to attract employers.

Gov. Rick Snyder can’t be happy about any of this. He and some of his sensible allies have been urging Right to Work advocates to back off, arguing that they were risking “World War III.”

Well, now they seem to have gotten precisely that.

Detroit bailout will enflame state

The final crisis doesn’t revolve around a ballot measure, but is equally crucial. Best estimates are that the city of Detroit will run out of cash to make payroll sometime this spring or summer.

Mayor Dave Bing has hinted he needs $150 million or so to tide the city over until a financial plan is put in place. Legislators, who only grudgingly agreed to put $4 million into a rescue of Highland Park School District students recently, are showing virtually no enthusiasm for putting up money to keep Detroit from financial collapse.

Book details shift to 'win-lose'

The scariest thing in all these crises may be that there is so little willingness to seek bipartisan compromise to reach solutions.

Plus, there are deep structural roots underlying the venomous partisanship we’re now seeing. Clearly, the economic consequences of mounting deficits, two very expensive wars and the continuing fallout from the crash of 2008 are shaping a very different America than we’ve known, according to "The Age of Austerity: How Scarcity Will Remake American Politics," Thomas Byrne Edsall’s new book.

Edsall, who covered politics for 25 years for the Washington Post, argues that most economic and political conflicts in American history were resolved by compromises on both sides. In most cases, the parties could afford to compromise because the economy as a whole was growing and solutions could be “win-win.”

But in the new structure of the economy, solutions may tend to be “zero-sum games,” in which one side wins and the other side loses. “A brutish future stands before us,” Edsall concludes, with Republicans and Democrats “enmeshed in a death struggle to protect the benefits and goods that flow to their respective bases” -- a “dog-eat-dog political competition over diminishing resources.”

What about calls for sensible compromise and bipartisanship? Wishful thinking, according to Edsall, because “incentives to sustain partisan warfare far outweigh the rewards of bipartisan cooperation” because “both parties have found that fear and anger are the best motivators to boost voter turnout.”

Grimly, there are signs that despite the best efforts of the well-intentioned, he may be right. On the left, the labor movement, faced with policies it believes would emasculate workers, has decided to go for broke. Conservatives, thinking the results of the 2010 election gave them a rare chance to alter the playing field, have been pressing heatedly about Right to Work.

This may be especially acute in Michigan. The Great Recession so damaged the finances of cities and schools that Emergency Managers were seen as the only remedy to feckless and incompetent local management. And in a state still struggling to overcome years of structurally unbalanced budgets, a call for money to save Detroit after decades of mismanagement is doomed to provoke conflict between the haves and the have-nots.

To some observers, win-win outcomes seem unlikely. Michigan’s long history of relatively sane joint approaches to problem-solving -- unions call it “collective bargaining,” others, “common sense” -- doesn’t seem to offer solutions anymore.
Indeed, these conflicts are at heart based in today’s remorseless realities of economics of scarcity and of necessity.

They’re not pretty, but then neither is Armageddon. We have to hope that, somehow, we can find the path to a better way.

Editor’s note: Former newspaper publisher and University of Michigan Regent Phil Power is a longtime observer of Michigan politics and economics. He is also the founder and chairman of the Center for Michigan, a nonprofit, bipartisan centrist think–and–do tank, designed to cure Michigan’s dysfunctional political culture; the Center also publishes Bridge Magazine. The opinions expressed here are Power’s own and do not represent the official views of the Center. He welcomes your comments via email.

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David Waymire
Thu, 03/15/2012 - 8:39am
It's useful to recall that our "scarcity" and "austerity" in Michigan regarding government funding is primarily the result of decisions made by our political leaders. In 2000, we spent about 9.49 percent of personal income on state government. Our unemployment rate was low; our economy was doing well. Today, we are down to about 6.7 percent of personal income going to state government. If we were collecting the same portion of income for state purposes today, we would have nearly $8 billion more to spend on schools, colleges, roads, law enforcement, the environment, investing in sewers and museums and other things that help create a high quality of life. It's not the economy -- it's choices we are making that are creating the "austerity" that is making Michigan more and more like Mississippi, a low tax, low income, high unemployment state.
Allan Blackburn
Thu, 03/15/2012 - 9:19am
Lansing, becoming all; "Republican" and ensuring that many bills being passed are anti-worker, anti-union, anti-people, pro-business, are guaranteeing that there will be no bi-partisanship. I have never seen it more ugly where; many people believe that their pork is great, the next guy's isn't and the battleground is just getting heated up. A bill was passed in Lansing which do not allow union dues to be collected out of teacher's pay checks. The writing was on the wall that this was done to kill off the teacher's union. They know that there will be a certain amount of teachers that will no longer pay their union dues so it was passed purely to weaken the union. Rumor has it that Governor Snyder claims that he does not want a war. If that is so then he should veto the 80 bills that are working their way to his desk that assure the destruction of the Middle Class while giving Big Business more and more perks.
Thu, 03/15/2012 - 10:14am
There is a kamikaze quality to the Tea Party types in our legislature. They are enjoying their moment in the sun, passing all kinds of awful laws that cripple the middle class.And they don't care if they are re-elected or not.That is a dangerously unhealthy attitude that produces all kinds of ill will. Most of the pro-business legislation passed by the legislature has been "guided" by the $30 million that lobbyists spend in Lansing to sway lawmakers.Until that greasy influence is taken out of the equation, lawmakers will be at the beck and call of whoever has the biggest checkbook. Example: Millions were spent to prevent the construction of a new bridge between the USA and Canada, and much of that booty landed in the pockets of the lawmakers.So, we have to either eliminate the power of lobbyists by legislation or we continue to see our government's decisions sold to the highest bidder.Bipartisanship takes a back seat to all these shenanigans.Woe is Michigan!
Frank Tomcsik
Thu, 03/15/2012 - 12:01pm
Is there any difference in the concept between the old time Protection Rackets in New York and other cities for the right to do business for pay, and the right to work by paying Union dues today?
Frank Tomcsik
Thu, 03/15/2012 - 12:04pm
It has the connotations of Union workers where more then necessary workers are required to be employed driving up the operational costs. Non union Japan American auto plants are able to pay non union workers comparable wages, because they aren't forced by a union to hire 90 workers to do a job that requires only 60 employees
Frank Tomcsik
Thu, 03/15/2012 - 12:06pm
Studies show that right to work states enjoy better economic conditions.
Thu, 03/15/2012 - 9:14pm
Mr. Power is right, it is all about the money and who gets it. What got us here was based on win-win, that was whne everyone got the money and nobody was accountable for how it was spent. Today there isn't enough money to go around so someone has to say how what is left is spent. The problem is that the voters are no longer the ones holding or not the poltician accountable, now it is the people who's money has been spent and they are still trying to be spent, the lenders. A neigboring town and its school disctict have had to face the choice, spend or cut spending. The city chose to cut spending and have made themselves solvent, the school district kept spending and are now indebt to the point they have had to asked for an emergency manager. It is easy to see the impact of the decisions made by politicians years ago. Back in the 80's the Japanese auto companies came to Michigan looking to build cars here, the Governor and the UAW were less then hospitable to them, to a people very cordial and sensitive to person respect. Where have all the foreign auto companies built their plants, not here. But we can't hold them accountable since they have moved on. That leaves the ones they taught only how confrontation works never how collaboration works. As for the lack of cooperation, all I see from the media is reporting on what isn't working never about when somehting works. So I am not surprised at the lack of willingness for people not to risk the abuse for stepping forward to work with others. Sure it will be "WWIII" because 'win-win' is a fallacy. The media likes to promote 'win-win' and 'collaboration' only because they like to see it in print. Collaboration, cooperation, accomodation has nothing to do with sides and each of them winning, it is about working together to getting the best results for the group. I suspect it will be a very heavily advertised campaign, I wonder if the media will monitor the spending and report how much and by whom or will they pick sides in there reporting?
Joan Reyes
Thu, 03/15/2012 - 10:22pm
I disagree with comments that state that right-to-work states have better economic conditions. They do not. I lived in Florida for 12 years. The salary I made was lower there, the benefits offered were less than in other places. At least I was luckier than a friend of mine who worked as an office manager. When the owner of the company chose to use the payroll to buy a new boat, he distributed the checks and they bounced. It was a very scary time for a lot of people in that company. This could very easily happen here if this idiocy passes. You'll be paid whatever the company feels like paying you. You'll be lucky if you will have insurance, vacation time or even sick time. You can be fired for whatever reason the company chooses. This was the economic condition in the workplace in the 19th century and it seems there are so many tone-deaf people in this state, that you are willing to hurt yourselves to go there. I already consider Michigan to be as backward a state as ever. It seems it will just take another giant step back.
Mon, 03/19/2012 - 2:04pm
We may need to have the Michigan Truth Squad examine the claim that all cities and school district under emergency manager control are majority African American. According to the 2000 U.S. Census figures, at least three of the municipalities currently under emergency managers (EMs) or consent agreements are, in fact, majority-white communities. Ecorse: 52% White and 41% African American Saginaw: 47% White and 43% African American River Rouge: 53% White and 42% African American We can also look at cities prior that had financial emergencies prior to 2011. Hamtramck: 61% White and 15% African American Three Oaks: 96% White, 1% African American It's possible that the African American population has grown in these communities since these figures were taken. But if not, then someone has some explaining to do.
Derek Melot
Tue, 03/20/2012 - 10:46am
Matt, Thanks for your comment. The state of Michigan currently lists the following communities with EMs: School District of the City of Highland Park (January 2012), Flint (November 2011), Benton Harbor (April 2010), Ecorse (October 2009), Detroit Public Schools (March 2009), Pontiac (March 2009). River Rouge is listed as having a consent agreement, not an EM. Saginaw is not listed with either an EM or consent agreement at the state website:,1607,7-121-1751_51556-201116--,00.html) According to this website Ecorse is not majority white. It shows 46.42 percent black, 44.01 percent white and another 4.55 percent are listed as "two races."