Michigan became a right-to-work state so swiftly that the Detroit Free Press couldn’t settle on a cliché to describe it: The legislation “moved like greased lightning,” wrote its reporters on December 7. When Republican governor Rick Snyder signed it four days later, as thousands of protesters marched and chanted around the capitol in Lansing, the Free Press observed that everything had happened “in the blink of an eye.”
In one sense, the newspaper’s clichés were on the money: The Michigan GOP had moved with startling speed to deliver a surprise victory against union power in what is probably the state most associated with Big Labor. Yet none of it would have been possible without a struggle that stretched back a generation, to a time when the idea of protecting Michigan’s workers from mandatory union membership seemed charmingly quixotic at best and a distracting fantasy at worst. Today, as conservatives plot their comeback from a painful defeat, the story of how right-to-work came to Michigan may provide an important lesson in how principle, planning, and patience can pay off.
The national right-to-work movement was built on the idea that government should not compel anybody to choose between holding a job and joining a union. It emerged after union membership peaked in the 1950s and went into its long decline. By the 1980s, 20 states, most of them in the South and West, had passed right-to-work laws. Yet the drive for new successes had stalled. In 1986, when Idaho became the 21st right-to-work state, nobody knew where the next victory would come or how long it would take.
One of the bit players in Idaho was Lawrence Reed, an economics professor at Northwood University in Michigan who had gone west to run the Center for the Study of Market Alternatives, a small think tank near Boise. When he returned to Michigan in 1987 to start the Mackinac Center, another free-market policy group, Reed began to argue that right-to-work would fuel growth. He attracted a few sympathizers, but not much else. “We talked about right-to-work quietly,” says former Republican governor John Engler, who was first elected in 1990. “We never had the sense that the votes were there to get it done. A lot of Republicans weren’t ready to deal with the issue. Labor was too strong.”
Even so, Engler broached the idea in 1993, in a special address on education to a joint session of Michigan’s legislature. “No public-school teacher should be compelled to be in the union to teach in the classroom,” he said. Engler essentially had proposed right-to-work for teachers. It didn’t go anywhere. Yet Reed, who listened to the speech from the chamber’s balcony, felt emboldened. “It was the first time in memory that a Michigan governor had mustered the courage to say such a thing,” he recalls.
During Engler’s years, Michigan conservatives made incremental gains against Big Labor, such as introducing charter schools and privatization. In 1996, Reed hired Robert Hunter, who had been President Reagan’s first appointee to the National Labor Relations Board, to manage the Mackinac Center’s labor-policy work. “When I arrived in Michigan, there wasn’t much of a debate about right-to-work,” says the now-retired Hunter. “Even our natural allies in business were reluctant. They wanted labor peace.” But Hunter remained optimistic as he published a series of studies on how right-to-work laws would create jobs. “Michigan will become, within a decade, a right-to-work state,” he predicted in a 1997 interview.
The following year, Engler ran for his third and final term as governor — and he pointedly refused to take up the right-to-work cause.
Democrat Jennifer Granholm succeeded Engler and was hostile to any kind of labor reform. Yet she also presided over a sputtering economy in the only state to lose population during the first decade of the 21st century. The Michiganders who didn’t move away became more open to new approaches. Or so it seemed in 2006, when the Detroit Free Press published the results of a poll on its front page: 56 percent of likely voters said that they favored the right to work, including 42 percent of voters in union households. “That was a stunning development,” says Reed, who now heads the Foundation for Economic Education in Atlanta. “It spurred us to work even harder.”
The next year, several business leaders called for right-to-work in Michigan. Behind the scenes, Republican funders poured money into private polling and focus groups. One of these moneymen was former Amway president Dick DeVos, who rarely mentioned right-to-work in 2006, when he lost a bid for governor. Another was Ron Weiser, owner of a real-estate-management firm in Ann Arbor. “We decided it was feasible to pass a constitutional amendment on the ballot,” says Weiser, who is currently finance chairman of the Republican National Committee.
They continued to study the matter into the first part of 2008 — until a decisive meeting in Washington, D.C., with Frank Keating, a banking lobbyist. In 2001, Keating had been the Republican governor of Oklahoma when it became the first state to pass a right-to-work law since Idaho. Keating described how tough the fight had been — and persuaded DeVos and Weiser that they would fail without a friendly governor. They agreed to wait until after the 2010 elections.
If nothing else, they had developed momentum. “We were suddenly talking about an actual possibility,” says Joseph Lehman, who succeeded Reed at the Mackinac Center. Although the Michigan Chamber of Commerce had promoted several labor reforms over the years, it never had taken a stance on right-to-work, and a group of business leaders in the Grand Rapids area grew tired of inaction. In the fall of 2008, they established the West Michigan Policy Forum — and publicly endorsed right-to-work.
By 2010, right-to-work was on the minds of voters. Patrick Colbeck discovered that the issue was alive among Republicans and independents in middle-income neighborhoods, as he knocked on doors during his run for the state senate. “When I said I was for right-to-work, a lot of people wanted my yard signs.” New groups also got behind the idea. Terry Bowman, a Ford employee and UAW member, formed Union Conservatives and traveled the state. “We got out the message on right-to-work, and it was good that the foundation had been laid for a long time by the Mackinac Center and others.”
Shortly after the Tea Party helped give Republicans control of Michigan’s state legislature as well as the governorship, Indiana’s Republican governor, Mitch Daniels, declared his support for right-to-work — something he had avoided doing for most of his tenure. Early in 2012, Indiana became the country’s 23rd right-to-work state, right on Michigan’s border.
Yet before anything could happen in Michigan, the right-to-work movement needed to overcome at least one more obstacle: Governor Rick Snyder, who had announced during his race that right-to-work would not be on his agenda. He called it “too divisive” — a label that must have seemed entirely fitting as he watched Governor Scott Walker of Wisconsin, his neighbor across Lake Michigan, suffer through 18 months of partisan strife. The unions thought they detected weakness and began to push for what would become Proposal 2, a 2012 ballot initiative to enshrine collective bargaining in the state constitution, effectively putting compulsory unionism beyond the reach of right-to-work reformers.
“This turned out to be a priceless gift,” says Mike Shirkey, a Republican legislator and right-to-work ringleader. “It gave us the entire summer to frame the debate and let us tell voters that we’re not out to destroy unions but to protect workers’ rights.” Unions and businesses spent more than $45 million on the initiative, making it nearly impossible to turn on a television without seeing dueling advertisements on Proposal 2. A September poll suggested that a plurality of voters favored the measure. On Election Day, Michigan Democrats turned out their base, delivering a nine-point win in the state for President Obama and a 21-point win for Senator Debbie Stabenow. Yet Proposal 2 went down to defeat, 57 percent to 43 percent. An exit poll suggested that, in addition to strong opposition among Republicans and independents, one quarter of Democrats voted against it.
The day after the election, Snyder told the Detroit News that right-to-work still was not on his agenda. DeVos and Weiser worked the phones. Colbeck and Shirkey marshaled their forces. By the end of the month, Snyder — who had never said he would not sign a bill if it reached his desk — was ready to embrace right-to-work. The Michigan Chamber of Commerce ended its longstanding refusal to comment on right-to-work and endorsed the measure. The final legislation affected all of Michigan’s workers, with the exception of police and firefighters. “Workers deserve the right to decide for themselves whether union membership benefits them,” said Snyder as he signed the law on December 11.
Now Michigan is poised to become the new Wisconsin, beset by lawsuits, recall elections, ballot initiatives, and a high-stakes race for governor in 2014. On December 10, Obama visited Detroit, wading into state politics and resurrecting the old labor slogan that “what they’re really talking about is giving you the right to work for less money.”
So the battle is joined — and, according to the Mackinac Center’s Lehman, it should hearten conservatives everywhere. “This is not a Michigan victory, but a national victory,” he says. “Do we have any problems at the federal level that look harder than bringing right-to-work to Michigan?”