How a longshot principle became a legislative possibility

Right-to-work protesters
Tuesday, Dec. 11, 2012: Several thousand protesters in Lansing gathered on the grounds of the state Capitol to protest a right-to-work bill.

When Indiana became the 23rd state to adopt a right-to-work law early in 2012, many thought such an option was a long way off for Michigan. With the 5th highest unionization rate in the country, comparatively high taxes and a reputation as the cradle of collective bargaining, Michigan seemed like too far a reach for even the most committed worker freedom advocates.

Now Michigan is the 24th state to adopt a right-to-work law, which protects employees from getting fired for refusing to financially support a union.

Mackinac Center President Joseph Lehman put it best when he said, “When I left the house for the state capitol last Tuesday morning, Michigan didn’t have a right-to-work law on its books. By the time I got home around midnight, it did. Gov. Rick Snyder’s signature on those bills marked the apogee of a two-decade arc drawn from the politically impossible to the politically inevitable.”

Back in 1995, Mackinac Center President Lawrence W. Reed landed a Mackinac Center Op-Ed on right-to-work legislation in the Detroit Free Press. He wrote:

The only thing unions have to fear from right-to-work is the free choice of the very workers union leaders say they are in business to help.

In 1995, only 19 states had a right-to-work law and none of them were in what had by then come to be known as the Rustbelt; the Indiana Legislature almost passed a right-to-work law which was vetoed by then-Gov. Evan Bayh; and the Teamsters and allied AFL-CIO unions had gone on strike against The Detroit News and Detroit Free Press. How far was the state conversation from a right-to-work law in Michigan that the unions could strike against legacy media and still feel the national conversation was in their hands?

The conversation has officially changed since the “Workplace Fairness and Equity Act” was signed by Gov. Snyder on Dec. 11, 2012, and much of the policy education is due to the Mackinac Center’s relentless commitment to the economic benefits a right-to-work law would bring to the beleaguered state of Michigan.

But anyone who says there isn’t much fight left in unions clearly is forgetting New Hampshire in 2011, where after massive media campaigns from the unions, a right-to-work bill was vetoed by Democratic Gov. John Lynch. Or the referendum in Ohio that would have brought public employee health care costs in line with private-sector averages, among other things, which 61 percent of voters rejected.

But the truth is, a right-to-work law  is beneficial to all workers, and the Mackinac Center has been pro-worker since 1988.

The benefits of a right-to-work law are not only offering opportunities to young workers in state, increasing wages, lowering unemployment, increasing disposable income or attracting new business, though it does all of those things. There’s a moral component, too. It is simply not justifiable in an advanced country like the United States that a worker can lose their job for declining to pay union dues or agency fees. That sort of institutionalized groupthink should be anathema to our legal system, and is anathema in a growing number of our states.

Unions themselves are victims of their own groupthink. The first and longest-serving president of the American Federation of Labor, Samuel Gompers, once said, “There may be here and there a worker who for certain reasons unexplainable to us does not join a union of labor. This is his right and no one can dare question his exercise of that legal right.”

Or refer to the touted champion of labor relations, President Franklin Delano Roosevelt, who despite being politically subject to the other great labor state, New York, said “Meticulous attention should be paid to the special relations and obligations of public servants to the public itself and to the Government. … The process of collective bargaining, as usually understood, cannot be transplanted into the public service.”

Imagine these labor-heroes’ consternation at hearing that millions are spent on anti-right-to-work media campaigns by labor unions themselves, or that the Michigan Public School Employees Retirement System has saddled taxpayers with a $22.4 billion unfunded liability. The country has come far from where it started in promoting workers’ rights.

The amount of money that goes straight to union pockets is staggering, but there is hope for their stranglehold on state budgets: the first state to allow public-sector collective bargaining was Wisconsin in the 1950s, but even a last-minute smear campaign alleging that Gov. Scott Walker had fathered an illegitimate child couldn’t save the union recall attempt this past June. Now, with the failure of union-backed Proposals 2 and 4 and with a right-to-work law in Michigan, it is conceivable that the Great Lake State will become a destination for our children and our children’s children once more, and not just a nostalgic pang from reruns of Pure Michigan commercials.

The proof is in the pudding: union membership is in decline across the board. The number of union members is 12 percent nationally and a meager 6.9 percent in the private sector. Even in a strong union state like Michigan, there are almost 50,000 fewer union members compared to 2009.

This is perhaps due to unions’ antiquated business model. Currently in forced unionism states, like Michigan was, they can take their members for granted because workers who don’t pay them will be fired. A right-to-work law forces these union leaders to practice “servant leadership,” because the possibility of not being paid for poor service is a viable alternative.

A right-to-work law is bigger than unions, because it will now help the entire state be more attractive to employers. We face an entrenched unemployment rate that has plagued us for far longer than the national recession, and returning jobs to Michigan ought to be our number one priority.  Michigan was the only state to lose population during the last decade, according to the Census. How much longer were we willing to tolerate young graduates and workers fleeing the state in search of employment before concrete measures were taken to ensure opportunities at home?

Just look to Indiana – which, if truth be told, is not known for having glorious weather in comparison to Michigan. The state has added 43,300 jobs since January, while Michigan has lost 7,300. Indiana’s manufacturing sector is growing; Michigan’s is declining. And above all else, the Indiana manufacturing worker is out-earning the Michigan manufacturing worker, even with the numerous new jobs added.

A right-to-work law means more and better jobs. It creates opportunities that allow future generations to stay and prosper in Michigan, and it empowers union members to expect the most from their representatives and their employers.

But the new right-to-work law will not go into effect until April, giving unions over 90 days to negotiate new or extend old contracts. It is entirely possible that they will choose contract extensions and union security clauses over their members’ benefits. The Mackinac Center will be here to defend the reform against all attacks and educate residents of Michigan about the benefits of the law.  We hope that, by serving the taxpayers of Michigan above all others, we will arm them with the most powerful bargaining tool: choice.