28 December 2012

Ski resorts hope for snow, cold temps

originally appeared in The Traverse City Record-Eagle:

Bing Crosby isn't alone in his lament for a White Christmas.
The region's ski resorts are watching weather forecasts and getting ready to pull the triggers on their snowguns, as soon as temperatures dip to 28 degrees or lower.

Winter storm "Draco" hit the Pacific Northwest early this week and is working its way to the Midwest. The National Weather Service said a likely scenario has a low-pressure system tracking south of northern Lower Michigan, which would mean cold and a distinct possibility of heavy blowing and drifting snow with significant lake effect snow through the weekend.
Bring it on, local ski resort operators said.

If we lose Christmas week, we lose about half of our operating budget for the whole year, according to the executive director at the nonprofit Mt. Holiday in Traverse City, which is scheduled to open Friday. We were anticipating being open and going full bore the 21st through the  7th of January. We were counting on those 10 days; we usually do between $200,000 and $250,000 during the 10-day period.

Mt. Holiday has sold about 500 season passes so far this year, according to their food and beverage director. Hill officials have made snow a few times, but need colder temperatures to go at it full-tilt. A little of the natural stuff wouldn't hurt, either.

We've got the guns out, they're pointed, our snowmaking guys are ready and on call, the food and beverage director said, describing the recent weather as kind of like running a tiki bar and having it rain everyday.

Shanty Creek Resorts near Bellaire also plan to officially kick off the season Friday, after opening last week. We're definitely not happy with the amount of snow that has fallen and lack of cold temperatures to make the snow. And certainly, rain does not help, according to their marketing manager.  Our base is holding, but we're not as far into snowmaking as we would like to be.

On Monday, Nubs Nob president and general manager said the resort was operating with at least 20 runs, after having 23 open on the weekend. Nubs Nob does about 30 percent of its ski business during the holiday period.

The forecast for a significant snowstorm arriving Thursday with up to eight inches of snow and four to five days of the coldest air of the season moving in behind it continues to get reinforced, he said Tuesday. This will enable us to make snow like crazy and likely be 100 percent open for the holidays.

At Boyne Highlands near Harbor Springs and Boyne Mountain in Boyne Falls, their spokeswoman reported bases in the 16- to 24-inch range Monday. She said the Highlands' 15 trails equate to 200 skiable acres — the most open in Michigan right now.
Of course, we never want to see any of that drizzly weather, but actually, conditions have held up really well, she said.

She was also excited about the weather forecast.
(It) would be a welcome sight for the Christmas holiday, adding fresh snow on the slopes and would also allow us to open some of our cross-country trails, she said.

Crystal Mountain near Thompsonville opened Dec. 14 and is operating with one lift and three runs and a 20-inch base, according to their public relations manager. Crystal planned to be open Thursday from noon to 6 p.m. and Friday, Saturday and Sunday from 9 a.m. to 9 p.m.
We'll be making snow whenever we can, he said. And we'll open additional runs, lifts and terrain as soon as possible.

24 December 2012

Michigan's Right-To-Work and The Hostess Bankruptcy: The Two Non-Stories Of the Year

originally appeared in Forbes:

Op/ed editors are more privy than most to what’s on the minds of opinion writers. There’s no money to be made on this information, but editors know ahead of time what the commentariat considers news.

Over the past six weeks this editor of what is a consciously libertarian page has been inundated with all manner of downcast op/eds on the Hostess bankruptcy, followed by upbeat ones about Michigan instituting a right-to-work law. While the submissions were almost invariably good, it says here that they were a near total waste of time.

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Considering Hostess, the fact that it’s a great brand with even better snack foods (my favorite are the chocolate chip muffins) means that soon enough someone will buy the company out bankruptcy. Thank goodness. Bankruptcy, though trumped up by bank and car bailout apologists as code for disappearance, really only means a positive change of ownership.

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Still, amid Hostess’s hurtle toward bankruptcy copious amounts of ink were spilled on how the snackmaker’s decline signaled the horrors of labor unions stuck in the past. About this, labor unions are stuck in the past for presuming that the very investors who set wages will give in to their wage demands, but that’s really beside the point.

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Not asked enough amid Hostess’s decline was why its management employed American workers to begin with. Forget about the fact that the workers were unionized and led by unions demanding absurd levels of compensation, the better question was why Hostess snacks were being baked in the U.S. at all.

Mass production of sugary U.S. goods is very much yesterday’s work, so for so many conservative and libertarian commentators to frame the Hostess story as one of profit-seeking management beset by gluttonous unions was for them to miss the real story. It wasn’t one about an iconic brand thrown into bankruptcy by greedy unions; rather the real, unreported story was that Hostess’s decision to bake its goods in the U.S. was a waste of limited labor, and as such, anti-profit.

If not by labor unions, the very presumption of Hostess’s management that it could profitably mass produce Hostess snacks in the U.S. ensured its future bankruptcy, or departure from the U.S. Of course when Hostess is inevitably purchased, it’s a fair bet that its new owners will quickly shift production to Mexico or some reasonable facsimile.

The above will constitute a good story about free trade and the always healthy division of labor, though it’s a near certainty that when this happens, conservatives and libertarians who should know better will frame the out-migration as evidence of the horrors of labor unions. Not defending unions for a second (though individuals should be allowed to sell their labor any way they wish, including from within unions), they’re really not the Hostess story.

Moving to last week, economically depressed and unionized Michigan adopted a right-to-work law that will give the individual the freedom to not pay dues and not join a union in a unionized workplace. Hysterics on the left talked up the cruelty of such an anti-worker law, but the real truth there is that those who feel their needs are better served by unions will still be free to join them.

On the right, those made downcast by Hostess’s bankruptcy were positively ecstatic about what had transpired in the Wolverine state. In a sense their excitement was warranted when we consider that the right to free association is one of our most fundamental ones. The shame is that states can restrict such a right as is.

After that, there’s really no story to the story that captivated so many who lean capitalist. Indeed, if it’s true that investors, not CEOs, ultimately set wages, and it is, good luck finding investors willing to fund such a labor intensive business in today’s United States. Labor intensive production has long been moving offshore, and that’s been a good thing for the economy as U.S. workers migrated to higher value service work.

About the above, those who should once again know better would cite unions as the cause of work being moved offshore, but this would be a false read. The better answer is that basic economics has pushed low value work out of the United States. As evidenced by low factory pay in China, investors have long understood that the work is worth the price of a Starbucks latte – and falling – on a daily basis, so factory jobs would have left no matter the status of labor unions in the United States.

Much as the economic nostalgists in our midst might wish otherwise, factory labor is yesterdays’ work, and the pay is all the evidence we need. If ever manufacturing jobs come roaring back to the U.S., we’ll know we’re in trouble. Investors loathe backwards moving economies, and manufacturing screams blast to the past. Enough said.

Of course union bashers will trot out statistics showing that job creation is greater in right-to-work states, but it seems here the economists who divine these statistics are mistaking cause and effect. Indeed, what investor would commit capital to any kind of business that has the potential to be unionized as is?

Instead, it’s probably a safe bet that states which coddle unions are generally less pro business than are states that don’t. Businesses that can be unionized increasingly don’t make sense (see the bankruptcies of airlines and car companies, plus their friends in Washington) absent political pull, so the existence or lack thereof of a right-to-work law wouldn’t matter much in today’s advanced economy. But businesses to varying degrees migrate to the environments most conducive to business, which likely explains the job disparity.

Back to Hostess, one can only hope it’s sold soon so that its numerous devotees can start enjoying its snacks again. As for Michigan, it should be applauded for embracing a law that is pro business; the problem again that unions lost economic relevance long ago. Because they did, the Hostess/union story is a non sequitur, while the Michigan one is mostly meaningless as it applies to the state’s economic health.

14 December 2012

Right to Work is signed into law in Michigan

originally appeared on CNBC:

A trained aerospace engineer 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 the new state senator 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 state senator 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 the state senator, 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 unions, which Republicans saw as a sign that public opinion would be behind them in their move to curb organized labor's power.

Bottom Up

For his maiden initiative, Colbeck found inspiration in the troubling 2010 census numbers. Michigan was the only state in the United States to see its population fall during the previous decade and he wanted to reverse that trend. People will not come back without jobs, his thinking went. That's when Colbeck concluded that right-to-work was required to bring in new investment.

They built from the grassroots, bottom up, rather than from Snyder and top leaders in the legislature. If anything, Michigan Senate Majority Leader Randy Richardville was viewed as an obstacle because he represents a labor-friendly area.

Together with a former Republican member of the Michigan House who supported right-to-work, and a small group of other activists, they founded the "Michigan Freedom to Work" coalition, which sought to capitalize on Republican control of the state legislature and the governorship.

They held press conferences in June 2011 and in September 2011 took their show to the Republican Leadership Conference on Michigan's Mackinac Island. In attendance were Republican presidential candidates Mitt Romney and Rick Perry as well as Republican National Committee Chairman Reince Priebus.

As a sign of growing support among conservatives for right-to-work, there were hundreds of activists in attendance wearing yellow "Freedom To Work" T-shirts.

A group linked to the conservative billionaire Koch Brothers, owners of an energy and trading conglomerate who are reviled by unions and Democrats, held three conferences in Michigan in early 2012 on right-to-work featuring renowned conservative blogger Andrew Breitbart. Three Republican presidential candidates including Romney and some 1,500 activists attended the last conference on Feb. 25 sponsored by Americans for Prosperity, four days before Breibart's death.

The right-to-work campaign gathered momentum when the activists linked up with Dick DeVos, the son of Richard DeVos, co-founder of Michigan-based Amway, and Ronald Weiser, former chairman of the Michigan Republican Party and ambassador to Slovakia under President George W. Bush.

Richard DeVos was listed as the 67th richest person in America by Forbes magazine in 2012 with a net worth estimated at $5.1 billion. Amway sells consumer goods such as skincare and home cleaning supplies through some 3 million people and its parent company had sales of $10.9 billion in 2011.

Dick DeVos and Ron Weiser travel in a certain rarefied atmosphere, Colbeck said, holding his hand above his head to indicate how far above him they are.

The wealthy businessman and the political guru both worked to persuade wavering Republican lawmakers by assuring them they would have financial support if they faced recall elections over right-to-work, as happened in Wisconsin, Colbeck, Hoogendyk and other Republicans said.

Asked if he had promised campaign financial support to nervous Republicans, DeVos, who ran unsuccessfully for governor in 2006, said in a telephone interview that he is pleased if he was able to help encourage legislators to truly vote their conscience without fear of political retribution from the other side, which is known for its heavy-handed tactics.

By the summer of 2012, Colbeck said supporters had gathered enough Republican votes to pass right-to-work in Michigan, but decided to wait until after the November election.

According to Colbeck, we wanted to be able to focus on the candidates during the election rather than have this distraction.

Battle Over Ballot Measure

Republicans said a key factor in passage of right-to-work was what they consider an overreach by unions in Michigan.

On March 6 of this year, a union group including United Auto Workers union president Bob King announced that they would seek a November ballot initiative to enshrine in the Michigan constitution the right to collective bargaining.

It was a power grab. In retrospect it was a huge mistake, according to the Michigan state director of Americans For Prosperity, a conservative non-profit partially funded by the Koch brothers.

At a public meeting of labor and corporate officers last summer, Snyder said he deliberately pleaded with union leaders not to go forward with the ballot initiative.

If you do this, you should anticipate you're going to create a divisive discussion on right-to-work also, Snyder told Reuters in an interview on Wednesday, recalling his remarks.

Unions pressed forward and some Republicans say that this essentially blew up a gentlemen's agreement between the unions and Republicans that neither would rock the boat on labor legislation in Michigan.

UAW President Bob King told Reuters that labor leaders pursued Proposal 2 because they expected a Republican push on right-to-work regardless.

The battle over Proposal 2 was nasty. Protecting Michigan Taxpayers, a group backed by DeVos, spent $22.7 million to oppose it, according to campaign finance disclosures filed with the state. DeVos family members alone provided $1.75 million of its funding, the records show.

Protect Working Families, a group backed by a union coalition that included the UAW, spent $22.9 million supporting Proposal 2, according to reports filed with the state. The UAW contributed about $5.6 million to that committee.

The proposition went down to defeat by 57 percent to 43 percent. Republicans interpreted this as suggesting that the public would support right-to-work, Colbeck said.


After the November election, activists decided that the time was ripe to bring up right-to-work.

Snyder indicated as soon as the election ended, the dialogue on right-to-work just really ramped up.

Activists viewed Senate leader Richardville as the most hesitant of the Republican leadership. Rather than confront him, sponsors quietly tried to convince him and lobbied other members of the Republican caucus.

Richardville, who says he hails from a union family, admitted that he was hesitant about right-to-work and said he made his mind up slowly as he saw the support in his Republican caucus.

There wasn't a eureka moment in that I finally see the light or a moment to jump up and down, he told Reuters.

Snyder, a former computer executive who had campaigned as a moderate in the 2010 election, had said for nearly two years that right-to-work was too divisive for Michigan, but said he would sign a law if the legislature passed it. After the election he tried to get labor leaders and Republicans together to discuss a compromise but he said those talks failed.

Snyder and Richardville both told Reuters that they had made up their minds to go through with right-to-work legislation after a Dec. 5 meeting with longtime right-to-work advocate state House Speaker Jase Bolger. Snyder announced the decision a day later and the draft laws were given preliminary approval by the legislature within hours.

Sponsors inserted in the laws a provision allocating $1 million to implement the laws, a shrewd way to make it harder to overturn the laws by referendum because Michigan's constitution bars challenges of spending bills.

A media campaign was rolled out. Television advertising appeared across the state extolling the virtues of right-to-work produced by an agency linked to an associate of Dick DeVos.

Democrats and unions were outraged and said they were blindsided. More than 12,000 people demonstrated on the grounds of the state Capitol in Lansing. They floated giant gray balloons of rats named Snyder, Richardville, Bolger and DeVos.

It was too late. Republicans gave final approval to the bills while union members marched outside the building. Snyder signed them into law within hours.

Democrats have vowed retribution at the polls, suggesting possible recall elections of Michigan Republicans.

There's been two or three recall attempts on me already, Snyder said. When you're reinventing a state you're asking for large-scale change and when change comes, some people don't like it.

UDM Law School clinic hopes to expand reach with new location

originally appeared in The Detroit News:

The University of Detroit Mercy Law School clinic's move to a renovated former downtown firehouse should be just the draw for clients seeking free legal services, officials said.

It's a great mix of the old and the new, according to the director of the law clinic. Since it was formerly a fire house, we like to think … as lawyers and law students we put out fires, but in a different way.

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The two-story, 6,000-square-foot building at 585 Larned still has its red fire doors and circular metal staircases. The law clinic includes a client reception area, student work areas, two conference rooms and faculty offices.

The new George J. Asher Law Clinic Center, a $1.5 million project completed Dec. 3, will be dedicated in a special ceremony Tuesday.

The dean of the UDM Law School, said he hopes moving the clinic from its former spot in Saints Peter and Paul Church on St. Antoine Street between Jefferson Avenue and Larned Street to the fire house will draw a larger clientele.

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Last year, more than 1,400 clients received legal assistance through the clinic, Semple said. He said he expects the new space to not only draw new clientele, but also increase student participation.

The dean said the glazed brick really adds to the beauty of the surroundings.

The school began considering more than a year ago a move to the fire house, which had been vacant for almost 10 years. Its previous owners had gutted the building for use as a recording studio.

The UDM dean noted the fire poles had to be removed for student safety, and there's a great deal of light that comes in on the first floor.

Several students said they like the new setup.

I think (the clinic) will be better organized with things being in one place,  said one third-year law student, who had to drive to her professor's office to access files for her immigration law clinic.

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Another third-year law student, said the new clinic is a more professional space and is easier for clients to find. (Students) put everything into representing our clients, she said. Having some place where we have resources and that clients won't struggle to find — it looks good.

The law school opened its first urban clinic 47 years ago. It operates 10 clinics in topics ranging from immigration and mortgage foreclosure to urban law.

The new clinic is named for George J. Asher, a union activist who was months shy of graduating from the law school when he died in 1963 from complications from hemophilia, said a UDM law alumnus who partially funded the project in honor of his brother .

Other contributors include the McGregor Foundation as well as other notable contributors.

A fourth-year law student who recently completed a state appellate defender clinic, said the new clinic helps set a standard for clients. Even though we're students, we're prepared and just as able to take your case on.

Adds the dean: The more people know about it the more people will come and seek our service.

13 December 2012

Right to Work in Michigan

originally appeared in The Wall Street Journal:

In November, unions lost big in Michigan when voters rejected Proposal 2, Big Labor's plan to canonize collective bargaining in the state constitution. Now they're facing a backlash with the happy possibility that Michigan could become the 24th right-to-work state.

Lawmakers have been preparing to introduce a right-to-work bill in the state legislature, and the labor cavalry is heading to the Wolverine state. According to the United Auto Workers website, the union will rally Thursday in Lansing to spook lawmakers out of going through with the bill.

Target No. 1 is Governor Rick Snyder, who held a press conference on Tuesday to say that right to work was on the agenda for "thoughtful discussion." That's a shift for Mr. Snyder, who has tiptoed around the topic since he was elected, saying it wasn't a battle he was looking for. Unions took his soft touch as a sign of weakness and pushed Proposal 2, which would have given them a virtual veto over all union-related legislation.

Meanwhile, the economy has languished. Michigan is the fifth most unionized state in the country and the birthplace of the UAW. According to the Mackinac Center for Public Policy, Michigan has lost 7,300 jobs since January, while next-door Indiana, which became a right-to-work state earlier this year, has been on the upswing.

According to the Indiana Economic Development Corporation, the state has a record number of businesses choosing to expand or set up in the state, including Amazon and Toyota. The 220 companies will create some 21,000 new jobs and invest $3.6 billion. The growth has come despite a decrease in the average tax incentives offered by the state to $8,900 from around $37,000 in previous years.

Republicans hold a 26-12 majority in the Michigan Senate and a 64-46 majority in the state House. According to a recent poll by Mitchell Research & Communications for a right-to-work advocacy group, 51% of Michiganders support a right-to-work law while 41% are opposed.

That's important because if a right-to-work law passed the legislature, unions could still try to repeal it on the ballot, as they did this year with the emergency manager law, which let the Governor appoint emergency financial managers who could redo collective-bargaining agreements. By the time a similar fight could be waged against right to work, voters could have had more than a year to see the law's economic benefits.

The AFL-CIO has said that politicians who oppose Big Labor would pay a steep political price, but it's not turning out that way. In Indiana, Republicans picked up nine seats after the right-to-work law passed and lawmakers who made the law a key part of their agenda won by wide margins. If that's the price they pay, Michigan's politicians should be all in.