As of Feb. 12, the majority of states have approved right-to-work laws, under which unions cannot get a worker fired for not paying them. On that day, the West Virginia Legislature voted to override Gov. Earl Ray Tomblin’s veto, bringing the count of right-to-work states up to 26.
What’s remarkable about this development is that it took place in a state that is considered by many to be the birthplace of the labor movement, and home of to the historically powerful United Mine Workers. The turnabout in that union state echoes Michigan’s passage of a right-to-work law in 2012, despite its status as the home of the United Auto Workers.
West Virginia’s unemployment rate is one of the highest in the nation and its economy has been struggling for years. It may now, though, see an economic rebound similar to that enjoyed by Michigan after it enacted worker freedom: Wages are up and unemployment has dropped sharply.
An op-ed co-authored by Mackinac Center labor expert F. Vincent Vernuccio was published in the Charleston Gazette-Mail during the heat of the debate in West Virginia. It noted the superior performance of right-to-work states:
“From 2012, the year Michigan passed right-to-work, until mid-2015, incomes in Michigan rose over nine percent, faster than West Virginia and the national average.
"From 2012-14, average hourly wages increased by 56 cents to $19.94 in [the right-to-work state of] Indiana, by 56 cents to $21.70 in Michigan, but only by 37 cents to $18.21 in West Virginia.”
Besides sending op-eds to the Mountain State, the Mackinac Center conducted a variety of educational efforts.
Starting in early fall 2015, it worked with several groups, including the West Virginia Business Industry Council, the West Virginia chapter of Americans for Prosperity, the Cardinal Institute for West Virginia Policy and others. Mackinac Center news stories, research, and the video “Labor Reform in the States” were all used by local groups to educate policymakers.
The Center also arranged for a film crew from one of the top political talk shows in West Virginia, “Decision Makers,” to drive to Michigan for interviews with key figures in the state, including former Speaker Jase Bolger, Chamber of Commerce President Rich Studley, NFIB director Charlie Owens, and the Mackinac Center’s Vernuccio.
Michigan Capitol Confidential reporter Jason Hart covered developments in West Virginia. His work included a video of the union protests, but more importantly, several articles combating union myths about right-to-work. He was also the co-author of the op-ed placed in the Charleston newspaper.
Vernuccio testified; penned op-eds; gave many media interviews, including one national broadcast and made several trips to speak in the state.
After the legislative vote, Vernuccio’s interview with The Wall Street Journal helped shaped the article “Obama’s Right-to-Work,” which argued that the story of West Virginia was not just about worker freedom but also a rebuff of the president’s war on coal.
Mackinac Center friend and auto worker Terry Bowman hosted several town halls, gave numerous speeches, met with lawmakers and testified.
Mitch Carmichael, West Virginia Senate Majority Leader noted:
“We could not have accomplished this extraordinary measure in West Virginia without the help of so many supporters of worker freedom, including the Mackinac Center for Public Policy. During the ongoing debate regarding workplace freedom in West Virginia, the Mackinac Center was an extremely useful resource for information about how workplace freedom laws had been successfully implemented in 25 other states. With the help of the Mackinac Center, we are proud of the fact that West Virginia’s passage of SB 1 means that a majority of the states now support workplace freedom laws.”