Insight: How Republicans engineered a blow to Michigan's powerful unions

Dec 13 2012, 17:51 IST
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SummaryFrom outside Michigan Republican circles, it appeared that the Republican drive to weaken unions

As a trained aerospace engineer, Patrick Colbeck applied his penchant for data analysis and "systematic approach" to his new job in early 2011: a Michigan state senator, recently elected and keen to create jobs in the faded industrial powerhouse.

Those skills paid off handsomely for the first-term Republican this week as Governor Rick Snyder signed into law bills co-sponsored by Colbeck that ban mandatory union membership, making Michigan the nation's 24th right-to-work state.

From outside Michigan Republican circles, it appeared that the Republican drive to weaken unions came out of the blue - proposed, passed and signed in a mere six days.

But the transformation had been in the making since March 2011 when Colbeck and a fellow freshman, state Representative Mike Shirkey, first seriously considered legislation to ban mandatory collection of union dues as a condition of employment in Michigan. Such was their zeal, they even went to union halls to make their pitch and were treated "respectfully," Colbeck said.

The upstarts were flirting with the once unthinkable, limiting union rights in a state that is the home of the heavily unionized U.S. auto industry and the birthplace of the nation's richest union, the United Auto Workers. For many Americans, Michigan is the state that defines organized labor.

But in a convergence of methodical planning and patient alliance building - the "systematic approach" - the reformers were on a roll, one that establishment Michigan Republicans came to embrace and promised to bankroll.

Republicans executed a plan - the timing, the language of the bills, the media strategy, and perhaps most importantly, the behind-the-scenes lobbying of top Republicans including Snyder.

They knew they would likely face an acrimonious battle of the kind they had seen over the last two years in the neighboring state of Wisconsin between Republican Governor Scott Walker and unions. Operating in plain sight but often overlooked, they worked to put the necessary building blocks in place.

"This was a risky move across-the-board and I wanted to make sure all of my (Republican) caucus members would come back to serve with me after the next election," said Colbeck, who ran for office after whetting his political appetite as a Tea Party activist.

November elections turned out to be key to the December move. House Republicans lost five seats, making passage in January a more difficult proposition than pushing through legislation in the lame-duck session.

But the November elections had also served up a crushing referendum defeat for

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