Money and Democracy

Published — December 12, 2012 Updated — May 19, 2014 at 12:19 pm ET

ALEC’s decades of ‘right-to-work’ effort pay off in Michigan

Think tank’s 32-year ‘right-to-work’ campaign succeeds in union stronghold


Amid protests by labor unions, and objections from the state’s congressional delegation and even the president, Michigan’s Republican Gov. Rick Snyder signed a “right-to-work” bill into law Tuesday, drawn word-for-word from a 32-year-old “model bill” pushed by a corporate-funded, conservative think tank.

The legislation deals a severe blow to organized labor in a state that has the fifth-highest union density in the country, and it marks the revival of an effort long promoted by the influential American Legislative Exchange Council, a Washington, D.C.-based nonprofit that has seen its share of controversy recently.

Since 1973, ALEC has hosted corporate-sponsored meetings where state legislators and lobbyists meet behind closed doors to write and vote on model legislation. In a 1992 annual report, the free-market think tank boasted that it “provides the private sector an unparalleled opportunity” to influence state legislation.

One of its first priorities was passage of “right-to-work” laws, which now exist in 24 states. The 16 states with the lowest union density in the country have right-to-work laws, mostly in the American South and West, while the 13 states with the highest union density do not, until this week.

‘Forced unionism’

In a publication celebrating its 25th year, ALEC said it “began striking out against forced unionism and for the right to work in 1979.” ALEC members endorsed the law as model legislation and began introducing it in states in 1980.

Federal law prohibits workplaces from requiring employees to belong to a union and pay dues. However, employees, be they union members or not, may still enjoy the benefits of a union-negotiated contract.

While labor organizations cannot compel workers to join the union, they can require workers at a unionized workplace to pay an “agency fee” to cover the cost of negotiating contracts on a worker’s behalf.

Unions argue that these fees, which are less than membership dues, prevent “free riders” who would reap the benefits of union representation without chipping in.

Right-to-work laws ban this arrangement, creating “open shops,” where new employees at a workplace that is unionized do not have to join the union, pay dues or pay the lesser agency fee.

Back to work

At its November conference in D.C., ALEC members on the Commerce, Insurance, and Economic Development Task Force voted to re-endorse 55 pieces of model legislation it has passed over the years, including the “right-to-work” bill, according to documents released by the liberal watchdog group Common Cause.

Since 2010, members of the task force have included some of the nation’s largest non-union and anti-union companies, including McDonalds, Wal-Mart, Bank of America and MillerCoors. All four of the companies quit the organization this year after ALEC faced scrutiny for its sponsorship of voter ID legislation.

Though long on ALEC’s agenda, “right-to-work” has been a tough sell in the states for decades. Since ALEC created the model legislation, only four states have passed it into law. In 1992, ALEC members introduced the bill in 11 state legislatures, including Michigan.

None of them passed.

In 1995, ALEC reported that its legislator-members introduced the bill in nine states, but again none passed new laws, according to ALEC annual reports. Idaho passed the law in 1985, but no state would pass it again until 2001, when 54 percent of Oklahomans approved a “right-to-work” constitutional amendment. The text of the Oklahoma law matched, word-for-word, that of ALEC’s model bill.

In 2012, a slew of ALEC members sponsored the bill in Indiana, which Republican Gov. Mitch Daniels signed into law in February.

Key parts of the Michigan law are identical to the text in the ALEC model bill.

Snyder flip flop

Michigan’s governor reversed his stance on what he had repeatedly called a “divisive” law that was not on his agenda. But last week, hours before the bill introduced, Snyder announced he would sign a bill if it arrived on his desk.

In a press conference, Snyder said the measure would help the state compete with “right-to-work” Indiana by enticing businesses to set up shop in a state plagued by the sustained flight of manufacturing jobs. He also passed the microphone to three “real Michigan workers” who gave support for the law. Hours later, the Michigan House and Senate, in a lame duck session, made a preliminary vote to approve the legislation without committee hearings.

At the time, Michigan state police locked protesters out of the state Capitol building in violation of a court order, while legislators prepared to vote. Some of Michigan’s Democratic state representatives briefly walked off the floor of the House chamber in protest.

When the Legislature reconvened a few days later to take final votes on the bills, which will apply to both public and private sector workers, thousands of pro-union protesters met them at the Capitol. After House members approved the bills, some began a sit-in at Gov. Snyder’s Lansing office, urging a veto.

Failed referendum

The “right-to-work” measure comes after 57 percent of Michigan voters rejected a union-backed ballot initiative in November which would have made “right-to-work” laws unconstitutional. Union membership in the state has dropped significantly since 1989, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics.

A month later, the measure’s opponents mobilized. The Chamber of Commerce, which backed a $26 million effort to sink the ballot initiative, endorsed the “right-to-work” bill soon before it was introduced in the Legislature.

The Michigan chapter of Americans for Prosperity, a national organization funded by the conservative billionaire brothers Charles and David Koch (who are also backers of ALEC), pitched a tent on the Capitol lawn that broadcast speeches by former President Ronald Reagan.

A nonprofit group called Michigan Freedom Fund cropped up in November. Run by an adviser to former Republican gubernatorial candidate Dick DeVos of the Amway family fortune, the group bought radio and television ads supporting the bills in December.

Another supporter of “right-to-work” laws on the ALEC Commerce, Insurance, and Economic Development Task Force is a Michigan-based think tank called the Mackinac Center. Mackinac’s Director Michael LaFaive wrote in December that the center has been pushing “right-to-work” laws since 1990.

In 2007, Mackinac released a “model” constitutional amendment for the law, which mirrored the text of the ALEC model bill.

Opponents and proponents disagree about the economic impact of the laws.

A study by the liberal Economic Policy Institute reports that right-to-work laws push down wages for all workers in a state “by an average of $1,500 per year” and that the rate of employer-sponsored health coverage was 2.6 percent lower in states with the law.

If Michigan adopted a “right-to-work” law, it would lead to lower wages, less access to health insurance and weakened pension benefits, wrote University of Oregon professor Gordon Lafer in a report on the potential impact of the law in Michigan.

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