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.