The Mackinac Center for Public Policy first published a brief calling for Michigan to become a right-to-work state in 1992. Despite the many compelling reasons that nobody should have to pay money to a union in order to hold a job, organized labor was so powerful at the time that few politicians took the idea seriously.
Not much changed over the following two decades. In fact, when Dr. William T. Wilson testified in 1999 before the Michigan Legislature that right-to-work laws were economically beneficial, he lost his job as an economist and vice president at Comerica Bank in Detroit. In 2009, a large chunk of the Republican caucus voted with the Democrats to kill a right-to-work bill.
By the time Republicans swept a majority into office in 2011, things had changed. At the end of that term, legislators made Michigan a right-to-work state. The “Overton Window” — the range of political ideas that the public is willing to accept — had clearly shifted. During the next election year, the issue was scarcely raised on the campaign trail and not a single politician who voted for the law lost an election.
The work wasn’t done, however. Unions have gone to great lengths to prevent workers from leaving — extending contracts, sometimes for more than a decade; bullying ex-members; and even trying to ruin the credit of people trying to leave unions.
The Mackinac Center has had to fight for people every step of the way. We have had numerous lawsuits working their way through the courts, including our successful challenge to an arbitrary opt-out window and our attempt to stop decade-long contracts that enrich unions with no benefit to workers. When people are bullied, our news website draws attention to their story and the state’s largest teachers union has been forced to change their tune. And our research makes the case again and again that right-to-work laws are beneficial to states, leading to an increase in jobs, wages, and population.
Michigan’s largest government union, the Michigan Education Association, has been particularly active in fighting the new right-to-work law. Shortly after the law was passed, local affiliates worked to extend contracts in order to buy time before allowing people to be free. In the meantime, state union officials claimed that the law was having little effect, and predicted only a small drop in membership.
The first step for workers to exercise their rights is to know about them. The Mackinac Center gained wide media attention through our lawsuits, and launched an advertising campaign that reached more than 200,000 union members. The campaign included setting up informational websites for school employees, auto workers, and other union members.
It is still early, but the results show that, among union members, there was a huge demand for worker freedom. Thousands of former members have left the Michigan Education Association (MEA), the United Auto Workers (UAW), and other unions over the past few years.
The MEA in particular is bleeding members. Since the law went into effect, Michigan’s largest government union has shed more than 22,000 members. Other factors — like privatization and competition from non-union charter schools — have contributed to this decrease in members, but the rate of decline more than doubled after Michigan became a right-to-work state and we began our opt out campaigns.
Although the economic arguments are strong, the most important reason to support right-to-work laws is moral: Nobody should have to give money to a political organization if they don’t want to. Polls consistently show that people agree, even in union-controlled states. Political results follow public opinion, which follows policy. It’s our job to make sure these results are positive.