News that Michigan became the nation's 24th right-to-work state on Tuesday produced surprise in liberal and conservative circles alike. But this tectonic shift is no surprise to us. It's the result of nearly a quarter-century of advocacy that shows how the politically improbable can become politically inevitable.
Unions ruled the legislature here for decades before free-market
activists, the Mackinac Center's first president Lawrence Reed chief
among them, began challenging their hold over the powers that be.
Eventually, the tide began to turn, and in 1995 the Detroit Free Press,
the state's largest newspaper, agreed to publish an op-ed by Mr. Reed
asking, "Should workers be compelled to join a labor union to hold their
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.
But it wasn't until Big Labor attempted
to amend the state constitution last month that voters had a public
conversation on union influence. Voters rejected by 15 points an
amendment that would have outlawed right to work and given government
unions effective veto power over the legislature. The people having
spoken, right-to-work legislation was prepared as Rep. Mike Shirkey and
Sen. Pat Colbeck, both Republicans, made the case to fellow lawmakers.
Union opposition to the bill was fierce, though not as widespread as
expected. The thousands of protesters who showed up at the capitol on
Tuesday were mostly well behaved, but some were loud and intimidating. A
group of anti-right-to-work protesters tore down an Americans for
Prosperity hospitality tent outside the capitol. Inside, on the floor of
the Michigan House of Representatives, Democratic Rep. Doug Geiss
threatened: "There will be blood. . . . There will be repercussions."
In response to the opposition's scare tactics and misinformation,
Gov. Rick Snyder repeatedly said that the bill he signed into law on
Tuesday is "pro-worker," and he is correct. Right to work does not
change any aspect of collective bargaining other than preventing
employees from getting fired for choosing not to join or remain in a
union and pay union dues or agency fees, which may go toward political
causes they don't support. Collective bargaining still exists in
right-to-work states, and workers are of course free to organize.
Michigan's right-to-work law has sent a message that is both a
warning and an inspiration to other states. The inspiration comes to the
supporters of worker freedom that if Michigan can give union members a
choice, so can they. The warning comes to its neighbors that Michigan is
open for business. Gov. Snyder cited interstate competition as a main
reason to pass right-to-work legislation, and again he was right.
Neighboring Indiana became a right-to-work state on Feb. 1. Since the
start of the year, the Hoosier State has welcomed many new employers
and added 43,300 jobs, while Michigan has lost 7,300. One example is
Caterpillar, which announced shortly after Indiana's decision that it
would move its London, Ontario, plant to Muncie. Indiana Gov. Mitch
Daniels told Fox News two days after he signed right to work into law
that his phone "began literally ringing yesterday afternoon with
companies wanting to come to our state."
Indiana is not alone. Between 1980 and
2011, total employment in right-to-work states grew by 71%, while
employment in non-right-to-work states grew 32%. Sadly, employment in
Michigan increased just 14% during that time. Since 2001, right-to-work
states added 3.5% more jobs, while other states decreased by 2.6%.
Similarly, inflation-adjusted compensation grew 12% in right-to-work
states, but just 3% in the others.
Nowhere is this growth needed more than
in the Great Lake State, home to the Detroit Three auto companies.
While auto manufacturers such as Toyota have thrived in southern
right-to-work states, Chrysler, GM and Ford have famously struggled in
the forced-unionism states of the Midwest. UAW demands have harmed these
companies, helping drive two into bankruptcy and government bailouts
while eviscerating union jobs. Since 2001, union membership in Michigan
is down by one-third, or about 300,000 members, many of them bled from
the auto industry.
Michigan was the only state to lose
population in the first decade of the new millennium. Unemployment was
9.1% in October of this year (the latest figures available). Union
membership is worth little if there are no jobs to fill.
Right to work can help reverse our loss of young people. Between 2000
and 2011, right-to-work states experienced an increase of 11.3% in the
number of residents between the ages of 25 and 34, according to the
Census Bureau. Other states barely increased by 0.6% in the same period.
Michigan's turn to worker freedom shows
the waning influence of Big Labor. Until this year, the last state to
enact right to work was Oklahoma in 2001. Yet in 2012, two states in the
union-dominated Midwest gave their workers the choice of whether they
would or would not pay dues or agency fees to a union. Other states will
most likely follow. And with each state that changes, the next will
Mr. Vernuccio is director of labor policy and Mr.
Lehman is president of the Mackinac Center for Public Policy,
headquartered in Midland, Mich.
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