In 2012, Michigan lawmakers passed the state’s right-to-work law, which kept workers from being fired for refusing to pay unions. In 2023, Michigan lawmakers repealed that law. Did the political environment change so much in 11 years? Did what was politically possible completely invert?
Right-to-work was clearly outside the Overton Window for much of Michigan’s history. It was toxic even to talk about in the Legislature as late as 1999. William T. Wilson found out the hard way. A vice president at Comerica bank, he told a legislative committee that right-to-work was a good policy. Union leaders were so incensed that they threatened to withdraw their deposits from his bank. Wilson was fired before he returned home. His offense: praising something outside the Overton Window.
A lot has changed since then. Union leaders remain the primary opponents of right-to- work, but the public’s opinion has changed. The Mackinac Center and other free-market groups did a lot to persuade people that letting workers opt out of paying unions was good for union members, for the state economy, and even for unions themselves.
Lawmakers got to see where the public stood on the subject in 2012, when union leaders gathered enough signatures to put a constitutional prohibition of right-to-work on the ballot. The proposal also called for elevating union contract terms above state law, effectively giving unions veto power over legislation. Voters rejected the proposal 57% to 43%. And polls taken immediately after found that between 51% and 54% of voters favored right-to-work policies. This led legislators to act on the voters’ message and pass right-to-work.
Since then, voters seemed to view the law favorably.
The law gave workers the option to opt out of unions, and 143,000 people did just that.
The 2022 election saw Democrats win majorities in both legislative chambers and reelect the state’s Democratic governor, but it didn’t seem to be a referendum on the right-to-work law. Whitmer didn’t discuss right-to-work on her campaign website. Neither did the new House Speaker, nor the new Senate Majority Leader.
Polling conducted at the end of 2022 and in the first months of 2023 revealed overwhelming support for right-to-work from Republicans and independents. Even union households favored the law.
Yet, repealing right-to-work became one of Democrats’ top priorities.
What is surprising is how little Democrats and union advocates did to try to persuade people. Even when the repeal was going through the legislative process, supporters refused to explain why unions couldn’t rely on voluntary support.
Advocates of repealing right-to-work didn’t have to. They just needed to get enough people with a union label elected to office.
The Overton Window has clearly shifted over the past 30 years. It shifted to make right-to-work possible, but it did not shift enough to make its repeal impossible.
Both approval and repeal are in the Overton Window now. That’s a major change. But more work is needed to convince people that unionization should rest on the constitutional right to voluntary association, as is the case with most American institutions.