Even in the middle of the college football season, a lifelong Buckeye has to look at the proposed “economic death warrant” that could be signed by the voters of Michigan in a couple of weeks with alarm and sadness.  It is certainly not the only terrible proposal on the Michigan ballot in November but, if passed, Michigan may never be able to undo the damage.

The good news to a voter who doesn’t like the biennial pressure of having to figure out for whom to vote is that, if Proposal 2 passes, it won’t matter much.  The state Constitution will determine how the state workforce is managed after the courts decide how to interpret it. Laws affecting government workers’ wages, hours and conditions of employment — at least 170 specific laws, according to the Mackinac Center for Public Policy — would be extinguished next month.

Maybe there wasn’t a whole lot of difference to begin with, between the unions dominating politics and actually running the state, but the space will be negligible from now on.  The state will be no less a ward of the federal government than General Motors became in 2008, because the people elected to manage it won’t have the authority.

(By the way, the government still owns 500 million shares of GM and needs to sell them for more than $50 a share to recover our money, according to recent articles in Forbes, Money and the Washington Post. The stock price is currently $23 a share, and the Treasury estimated last month that the government would lose around $25 billion if it sold right now. That’s in addition to the revenue lost when the Obama car czars permitted GM, unlike other bankrupt companies, to continue to deduct previous losses from current profits.)

Many people who will vote for this proposal, which is an even bet in Michigan as I write this, are taken in by the argument that this is about social justice and fairness, misperceiving the difference between public and private employment.  If GM goes on strike, you can buy a Jeep, or no car at all if you live in Manhattan. If you do live in Manhattan, you might remember the 1968 strike by employees of the New York Sanitation Department, which allowed 10,000 tons of garbage to pile up on the city streets every day while it lasted.

There is no short-term alternative for a firefighter or a teacher. People who are old enough may well remember that union organizers lost an attempt to get collective bargaining for public employees in my state during the 1970s after a picture of an agonized homeowner trying to put out a home fire with his garden hose appeared on the front page of the Dayton Daily News during a firefighters’ strike.

Public employees are specifically excluded from the National Labor Relations Act, so the fairness question has been settled by sound public policy for many years. Government services are supposed to be essential, and not left to the marketplace competition to sort out how you purchase them.  You pay taxes, and you owe for all of these services whether you use them or not.

Federal employees are not permitted to strike, to maintain the appearance that federal government services are essential. You may recall that it unfortunately fell to President Reagan, the first American president to be a lifetime member of the AFL-CIO, to fire the striking air traffic controllers in 1981. All union membership in the federal sector is entirely voluntary, as the law does not allow for a “closed shop“. Federal employees are barred from being candidates for partisan political office and no dues money may be legally spent on partisan political campaigns.

None of this is true in Michigan, and there have been cases where a majority of the school board representing the school district in the community have been teachers. If the Legislature had done this, there would be a devastating backlash against the people who voted for it.  The generalized idea of social justice will be overwhelmed with specific ugly feelings against striking firefighters and police.

Some public employees are gun toting, and there are cases where they have intimidated mayors and city council members over their benefits.  Job actions by government employees are just a bad idea all around and Michigan could literally put the worst manifestation yet into their state Constitution.

The biggest irony of all is that Michigan was one of the first states to attack the out-of-control public employee pensions that the taxpayers can no longer afford, and other states were following Michigan’s lead.  Proposal 2 would change the state Constitution so that public employees would no longer have to contribute to their pensions.  In economic terms, this is repealing the law of gravity for state employees.

Michigan’s loss will undoubtedly be a gain for Indiana and Ohio, but not in a healthy way, and the pressure will mount to nail down union preferences in other state constitutions if Proposal 2 passes.  Michigan may never be first in anything again, compared to its sister states, except for reaching the ratio of state product to debt that has propelled Greece to its lofty perch among sovereign nations, even as it threatens to fracture the euro.


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