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You Know Unions Are Weak When Disgruntled Autoworkers Can't Oust a GOP Governor

Bill Pugliano/Getty Images News

Rick Snyder has won a second term as governor of Michigan. The victory is not a shock: He and the Democrat, Mark Schauer, have been running neck-and-neck for a while. Many experts predicted Snyder would hold on. But the win is striking given that, on the very same night, Gary Peters, the Democratic candidate for Michigan’s open Senate seat, absolutely trounced Terri Lynn Land, the Republican nominee.

Why did Snyder win? It helps that Michigan’s economy, which hit rock bottom with the near-collapse of the auto industry, has been rebounding. The unemployment rate has fallen to 7.1 percent, from a peak of more than 14 percent in 2009. It also helps that Snyder is a relatively moderate Republican, at least by today’s standards. He was a vocal and persistent advocate for expanding Medicaid eligibility, as part of Obamacare, and he went so far as to fight fellow Republicans in the state legislature over it. (John Kasich, who did the very same thing in Ohio, also won reelection.) It’s hard to imagine a Tea Party governor winning in Michigan, which has become reliably Democratic in national elections.

But the striking thing about Snyder’s victory is that he withstood intense attacks from the labor movement. Snyder signed a right-to-work law, albeit reluctantly—a body blow to the union movement in a state that, perhaps more than any other, is associated with organized labor. When Snyder signed the bill, critics said that he was signing his political death warrant. Quite obviously, Snyder was able to survive—just like Scott Walker was able to take on the unions and win reelection as governor of Wisconsin.

Unions still wield significant influence—particularly in places like Las Vegas and Southern California, where they’ve successfully organized hotel and service workers. But when disgruntled autoworkers can’t oust a governor in Michigan, of all places, then you know the older, industrial unions really have lost most of their power.