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Union Showdown in Michigan

As election season heads into the home stretch, all eyes are on the presidential race. But while Obama and Romney are hogging the spotlight, another very important fight over labor unions is brewing in Michigan. We reported last month that Michigan’s unions scored an important victory when a measure enshrining collective-bargaining rights and outlawing right-to-work legislation was allowed on the ballot. Now the New York Times is reporting that both sides are throwing everything they have into this fight with only two weeks left to go:

Further flexing their muscles, unions are sponsoring two other proposals on the Michigan ballot. One would repeal a law that allows emergency managers appointed to oversee financially distressed communities to void union contracts. Another would amend the Constitution to guarantee home health aides the right to unionize.

Both sides are flooding the airwaves with ads about Proposal 2, with each side accusing the other of using misleading scare tactics.

In one union-backed commercial, for example, a firefighter is wearing an elaborate fireproof apparatus over his head. “This air pack I’m wearing gives me 30 minutes to look inside your burning house and find you,” he says. “Having the most modern dependable equipment when the clock is ticking, that counts. If it comes from collective bargaining, the politicians can’t cut it without our say-so.”

Opponents are broadcasting an ad that begins with a child leaving for school. “When we send them off in the morning, we should be certain they’re safe in school,” the voice-over says. “If Proposal 2 passes, it would eliminate safety rules for school bus drivers. Worse, Proposal 2 could prohibit schools from removing employees with criminal records. That’s dangerous for kids and terrifying for parents.”

Polls currently show that supporters of the measure have a slight edge, although the race is still much too close to call.

If the bill passes, this would indeed be a major victory for a union movement that has seen precious few of them in the past few years. Midwestern states like Wisconsin, Ohio and Michigan were once the heart of America’s labor movement, but many of these states have been leading the charge against collective bargaining since 2010.

But the unions’ hope that a victory in Michigan will breathe new life into their movement may be misplaced. Michigan’s large manufacturing and union history make it perhaps the most favorable environment for union-friendly legislation in the country. If unions can barely eke out a victory there, it does not bode well for their chances elsewhere. And with state and local finances in dismal shape in union-heavy blue states, desperate politicians are unlikely to have much sympathy for union demands as they try to put their house in order.

With the national climate turning against them, the battle in Michigan is looking more like a last-ditch stand than a turning point for public-sector unions.

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