Published Thursday, December 13, 2012
That very loud “Boom!” you heard this past Tuesday was the sound of history being made in an unlikely place — Michigan. It’s the state in which I lived for most of 33 years until I came to Georgia in 2010 and it’s about to become the 24th to affirm the right of workers to be free of union coercion.
On Tuesday, Michigan’s legislature passed a Right to Work (RTW) law, and soon, Gov. Rick Snyder will sign it. When it takes effect next year, it will mean that workers in Michigan, just like those here in Georgia, cannot be forced to join or pay dues to a labor organization as a condition of employment.
I remember well the first time I wrote about RTW in the Detroit Free Press almost 20 years ago. Better yet, I remember the reaction to it: A scattering of lukewarm encouragement on the order of “good luck on that one” and “someday maybe, but not in my lifetime” and a whole lot of “no way, never” with some unrepeatable epithets tossed in to underscore the point.
It wasn’t the first time I or the organization I headed, the Mackinac Center, had called for RTW, but getting such prominence for the idea in the state’s largest daily newspaper was an early victory on a long road. While we knew from the start that it would be mostly uphill, our attitude was “so let’s get to work on it.”
I had lived in Idaho from 1984 to 1987, running a small think-tank. We worked on the RTW issue, and when Idaho voters were set to vote on the matter in 1986, we researched and wrote and spoke our hearts out. In the end, Idahoans supported it by a wide margin and made Idaho the nation’s 21st RTW state. I knew it could be done someday in Michigan, though I also knew that the path to get there would likely affirm these words attributed to Gandhi: “First they ignore you, then they laugh at you, then they fight you, then you win.”
No history of how Michigan ended the scourge of compulsory unionism can be told without citing the indispensable role of the Mackinac Center, where I served as president for two decades. I am immensely proud of that fact. We made the case for it when it was on no one’s radar. We produced studies, commentaries and lectures about the concept for two decades. We simply never gave up. When you know something is right, why would you?
After Idaho voted for RTW in 1986 (after which its economy predictably soared), it took 15 years before the next state followed suit. That was Oklahoma in 2001. Then it was Indiana’s turn just a year ago. And now, Michigan, home of the United Auto Workers. If it can happen there, freedom of choice in labor representation can happen anywhere.
Congratulations to Michigan for seeing the wisdom to do something that Georgia did many years ago.
(Lawrence W. Reed, a resident of Newnan, is president of the Foundation for Economic Education in Irvington, N.Y., and Atlanta.)