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Opinion: Columnists

Manhattan Moment: Republicans enacting bold reforms in Democratic Midwest bastions

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After Nov. 6, the amount of blue on the presidential electoral map made it appear as if the entire Midwest had been swallowed by the Great Lakes. Ohio, Michigan, Illinois, Wisconsin, Iowa and Minnesota all went for Barack Obama. Most weren't close.

One might think, then, that the American Midwest is hopelessly lost to the forces of big government. Yet within many of these states, something else is happening: Conservatives are enacting some of the boldest reforms in the country, to broad public approval.

The latest example comes from Michigan, where Republican Gov. Rick Snyder signed into law two right-to-work bills, which essentially prohibit making unionization a requirement for employment. Snyder cited the need to compete for jobs with neighboring Indiana, which also recently enacted a right-to-work law, as a primary reason he backed the change.

Supporters of the new law argue that freeing businesses from the shackles of unionization will provide a boost to the state's economy, which has been struggling for more than a decade. Michigan boasts the nation's fourth-highest unemployment rate. The unions have gone ballistic. Fueling their anger further, in November, the state's voters soundly rejected Proposition 2, a ballot measure that would have enshrined a collective-bargaining right in the Michigan constitution.

Michigan's tussle with unions follows a two-year imbroglio in Wisconsin, where, early in 2011, Republican Gov. Scott Walker virtually eliminated public-sector collective bargaining. Walker's move inflamed the state's government unions, leading to months of demonstrations, disruptions and recall elections. Last June, Walker survived a recall, beating Milwaukee Mayor Tom Barrett (his opponent in the 2010 general election) by 7 percentage points -- a larger winning margin than he had enjoyed two years earlier.

Perhaps the most surprising recent labor battle has been in Illinois, where Chicago's Democratic mayor, Rahm Emanuel, has challenged public-union benefits and work hours. In September, Emanuel refused to cave in to the demands of 26,000 striking Chicago teachers. The teachers wanted pay increases of 30 percent to reflect a longer workday, and they objected to a proposed teacher evaluation system. For almost two weeks, 350,000 Chicago schoolchildren sat home, while their teachers marched in picket lines. But Emanuel stood firm, and the teachers returned to work. (Emanuel has also challenged the city's operating-engineers union on overtime policy and has proposed privatizing Chicago's recycling system.)

None of these initiatives is particularly innovative; Michigan became the 24th right-to-work state, for example. Twenty-four U.S. states have either reduced public-sector collective bargaining or don't permit it at all. Big cities deal with restrictive union contracts every fiscal year.

The real surprise is where these changes are taking place. Michigan is the birthplace of the United Auto Workers; the American Federation of State, County, and Municipal Employees (AFSCME) originated in Madison, Wisconsin; the Teamsters formed in Chicago in 1901.

This history explains some of the virulent opposition -- including of the violent kind -- reformers have seen in these areas of the Midwest. Labor protesters in Michigan cut down the tent of a conservative organization, trapping people underneath the tarp. A Fox News contributor was punched in the face. In Wisconsin, where protests occasionally topped 100,000 demonstrators, vulgar and tasteless acts dragged on for more than 18 months. (One Republican State Assembly member had a beer poured on his head.)

Still, Republicans in the Midwest have been successful in implementing conservative reforms at the state and local levels -- and voters keep electing them. So while Republicans around the nation may be kicking themselves at their missed opportunity in the presidential and U.S. Senate races this November, they should be heartened that many of the changes they want to see are already taking place -- and often in the most unlikely places.

Christian Schneider is a columnist for the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel. This piece is an adaptation from City Journal.

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