(Editor’s note: The following commentary originally appeared in “Compass,” the magazine of the Illinois Policy Institute.)
Labor unions have a virtual lock on Illinois politics. Unionized government delivers services ever-less efficiently in rough proportion to its ever-increasing size. It promulgates taxes and regulations that stifle private sector growth. It’s impossible to break the unions’ grip on Illinois’ fiscal health.
Substitute “Michigan” for “Illinois” and one might have said the same thing about the Great Lake State a few years ago. Yet Michigan, the cradle of organized labor and national stronghold of its power, became the 24th state to pass a Right-to-Work law in December 2012.
How did this happen, and what does it mean for Illinois?
An Olympic champion gets the gold by winning the race just before medals are handed out. But that doesn’t explain everything that put the right runner with the right training in the right race at the right moment. It takes tons of heart, gallons of sweat, hundreds of good decisions and many years. Similarly, Michigan’s story of Right to Work is one of endurance and persistence.
The Mackinac Center for Public Policy is the Illinois Policy Institute’s Michigan counterpart. Mackinac suggested in 1992 that the state would be better off giving workers, not unions, the choice over whether to pay dues to hold a job. This was the first serious proposal for Right to Work by any organization with a statewide voice.
The silence in response was deafening.
Three years later, former Mackinac Center President Lawrence W. Reed asked the question in the state’s largest newspaper: “Should workers be compelled to join a labor union to hold their jobs?” The Right-to-Work idea began to make progress as the silence gave way to ridicule and attack.
Meanwhile, Mackinac wrote a library of studies and analyses of Right to Work. Its legislative testimony in 1999 raised the profile of Right to Work again. But unions responded with threats and attacks that cost Mackinac’s adjunct economist his executive-level job at a major Michigan institution.
Mackinac didn’t give up, but instead rallied others to the cause as its analysts continued studying and promoting Right to Work.
Whenever unionists picketed Mackinac events the public got a chance to compare Mackinac’s approach – reason, persuasion and choice – with the unions’ approach – threat, intimidation and compulsion.
Even in the early 2000s, lawmakers were nowhere near ready to pass Right to Work, but Mackinac made the impossible idea impossible to ignore. A 2006 Detroit Free Press poll showed 56 percent of likely voters supported Right to Work, an amazing development resulting from years of Mackinac-led study and outreach. The idea phase continued, but a political phase began as political and business leaders stopped asking Mackinac, “Why won’t you go away?” and quietly started asking each other, “How can we do this, and when?”
Serious work began on a Right-to-Work ballot measure strategy in 2007, but it was a false start. Then Republicans gained control of Michigan’s government and major labor reforms passed in Wisconsin, Ohio and Indiana. Unions sought to amend Michigan’s Constitution in 2012 to give government union contracts power to trump state law. We knew if the people rejected the unions’ radical amendment soundly, the stage would be set for a legislative Right-to-Work strategy.
That’s exactly what happened. Labor reform allies worked furiously to beat the amendment and, behind the scenes, to tee up Right to Work. Then, in the waning days of the legislative session, Michigan Gov. Rick Snyder publicly announced that Right to Work was “on his agenda.” Lawmakers introduced bills two days later and the governor signed them five days after that. What had once been impossible had become inevitable. A key political insider said, “Right to Work wouldn’t have been on the table if the Mackinac Center hadn’t put it there.”
Illinois isn’t Michigan and it shouldn’t try to replicate Michigan’s every move. But both states have scores of laws that heavily tilt government employment and spending in favor of union interests, and both states find organized labor’s political power to be the chief obstacle to their most promising fiscal reforms.
For Right to Work to move from impossible to inevitable in Illinois, reformers should focus first on the idea phase to create the environment for a future political phase. Starting with the political phase guarantees setbacks because lawmakers usually won’t stick their necks out for an idea the people won’t get behind. That’s why the Illinois Policy Institute is so critical. Like Mackinac, it understands the power of developing an idea in order to make it politically possible.
Not every impossible idea becomes reality, but strategies exist for transforming impossible ideas into reality. Illinois is becoming surrounded by states that are taking on unions to regain control of their fiscal destinies. Chances are it won’t take as long for the Illinois Policy Institute to make Illinois a Right-to-Work state as it took for Mackinac to win its victory.
Joseph G. Lehman is president of the Mackinac Center for Public Policy, a research and educational institute headquartered in Midland, Mich.