On a cold day in December 2012, Michigan made history. It was the birthplace of the United Auto Workers, the state with the fifth-highest rate of union membership, and a place that everyone thought of as the union stronghold. And yet the state took away unions’ ability to get workers fired for not paying dues.
Ten years ago, Michigan lawmakers passed and Gov. Rick Snyder signed legislation that made Michigan the 24th state to have a right-to- work law. What was unthinkable a year earlier happened, and it inspired people in other states to follow suit.
The effort to bring about worker freedom was a team effort: freshman lawmakers who were so green they didn’t know it couldn’t be done, brave legislative leaders, and a governor who finally invited legislators to send a measure to his desk.
As I wrote with Mackinac Center President Joe Lehman in The Wall Street Journal shortly after the victory, there were others, too: “Over time, brave workers like UAW member Terry Bowman, president of Union Conservatives, stood up and demanded a choice. The West Michigan Policy Forum and Michigan Chamber of Commerce added their voices and influence to the cause. Americans for Prosperity marshaled activists.”
And of course, there was the Mackinac Center, which for decades had steadily educated lawmakers and others on the need for and the benefits of worker freedom. The Mackinac Center’s first president, Lawrence W. Reed, launched the effort when he asked in a 1995 Detroit News article, “Should workers be compelled to join a labor union to hold their jobs?”
The list of people who should receive credit for this policy change is too long to include. But one key figure was Bob King, then president of the United Auto Workers.
Earlier in 2012, King lobbied for a ballot proposal that would have outlawed right-to-work. It would go even further, however, giving government employee unions an effective veto over legislation by enshrining their collective bargaining position in the Michigan Constitution.
Then in the summer, the Mackinac Center ran a statewide education effort on the problems the proposal would bring to Michigan. The proposal attracted national attention and was widely seen as a referendum on right-to-work. Thankfully, freedom won at the ballot box, and voters rejected the proposal by 15 percentage points.
Thanks to union overreach, Michigan had the conversation that many were uncomfortable having. When the vote was counted, though, worker freedom won the day.
This set the stage for the introduction and eventual passage of a right-to-work bill.
After the legislation was introduced, unions stormed the Michigan Capitol. Opponents of right-to-work threatened violence, and some even acted on it.
Protestors tore down a tent that Americans for Prosperity had placed on the state Capitol grounds for a rally. I was there that day, surrounded by protestors, including one who said, “I am going to knock your [deleted] head off.”
Even a lawmaker got into the act. Rep. Doug Geiss, D-Taylor, infamously said, “There will be blood.” He later said he meant only political blood. Terry O’Sullivan, general president of the Labor International Union of North America, warned politicians who might vote for right-to-work: “We are going to take you on and take you out.”
Despite the threat of violence and political repercussions, right-to-work became the law of Michigan on Dec. 11, 2012, and it went into effect the following March.
Workers like Terry Bowman would no longer be forced to pay union fees just to keep their jobs.
The state economy improved. In the first year and a half after the law took effect, 142,000 more workers were employed, and weekly earnings in the private sector increased by 5.4% — far outpacing the national average of 3.7%.
At the time, only Indiana, then the only other right-to-work state in the Midwest, outpaced Michigan for job growth. In general, right-to-work states have higher wage growth, higher job growth and lower unemployment.
The political threats came to nothing. Not a single lawmaker who voted for right-to-work lost in the next general election, and Snyder won reelection. More surprisingly, right-to-work wasn’t even a major issue.
The victory in Michigan served as an inspiration to lawmakers in other states, who also survived after taking similar measures. It also inspired Mackinac’s “You Can, Too” tour, during which we told the story of this victory and worked with lawmakers throughout the country. Within five years, Wisconsin, West Virginia and Kentucky all had right-to-work laws.
The primary benefit of right-to-work is freedom — stopping unions from getting workers fired for not paying them. But it also has a positive impact on state economies, wages, jobs, and even the politicians who support it.
Ten years later, this is still true and a reason to celebrate.
There was plenty of hard work and research published to give right-to-work a chance of passing in Michigan.
We’ve compiled a list of the most important events and created an online interactive timeline so you can follow the events leading up to the passage of right-to-work.
To see the full timeline, visit: Mackinac.org/RTWtimeline