Fifth and final installment of the Washington Examiner series Working Man's Blues: Michigan's journey from Big Labor fortress to right-to-work state. To read all five installments in the series and see video and other multimedia, click here.
United Auto Workers President Bob King was worried. He had watched in disgust in 2010 as Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker succeeded in doing away with automatic union dues deductions for government workers.
Ohio Gov. John Kaisch won passage of a similar bill in 2011. Unions were later able to overturn it, but then Indiana Gov. Mitch Daniels signed a right- to-work law in his state.
But King's worst fear came true in 2012 when Michigan Republicans introduced their own right-to-work bill. Newly elected Republican Gov. Rick Snyder wanted to avoid the issue, but promised to sign the proposal if the state legislature approved it.
King decided in early 2012 that waiting was too risky, so, instead, he sought to persuade Michigan voters to approve a constitutional amendment that would permanently prevent the state from adopting a right-to-work law.
|Working Man's Blues: Michigan's journey from Big Labor fortress to right-to-work state
A five-part special series by the Washington Examiner
Monday: Big Labor and one-party government drove Detroit into the ditch
Tuesday: Even Detroit's boom years had to end
Wednesday: Detroit downsizes as Japan builds plants in the right-to-work South
Thursday: The Bush and Obama bailouts "save" the UAW
Friday: How the UAW made Michigan a right-to-work state
See the complete series, along with video and related media, at this link.
"So we in labor said... we know it's coming, this has been a 10-year, at least, effort by ... right-wingers," King told the Metro Times after the 2012 election. "It was our leadership responsibility to try and head this off. So we put together Proposal 2."
It was a colossal miscalculation. Instead of forever banning right-to-work in the UAW's home state, Proposal 2 ended clearing the way for Michigan to become the 24th state to guarantee a worker's right not to join a union.
A loose network of Wolverine State free-market groups and activists like the Mackinac Center and the Michigan Freedom Fund had been arguing for right to work since the early 1990s with only modest progress.
Michigan, already ailing from the decline of the auto market, had hit seriously hard times, culminating in the General Motors and Chrysler bailouts in 2009 and the closing of Delphi, the industry's largest parts supplier.
Michigan's unemployment rate was then around 9 percent, a full point above the national average, even as its working-age population shrank. More than one of every 10 people in the critical 25-to-34 age bracket fled the state between 1993-2003 looking for work elsewhere.
Something was needed to attract new business. Mackinac noted that in the three decades following 1980, total employment in right-to-work states grew 71 percent, compared with 32 percent in the rest. For Michigan, the rate dragged along at 14 percent over the same period.
Other activist groups like Americans for Prosperity and the Michigan Freedom to Work Committee then began talking up right-to-work. In 2012, two Republican lawmakers, Sen. Pat Colbeck and Rep. Mike Shirkey introduced a bill.
Proposal 2 would prevent this by amending the state constitution to include: "The people shall have the rights to organize together to form, join or assist labor organizations, and to bargain collectively with a public or private employer through an exclusive representative of the employees' choosing, to the fullest extent not preempted by the laws of the United States."
King also convinced the Big Three automakers to stay out of the fight to preserve peace with their unions. But other business groups sided with the GOP and free-market groups.
Both sides ultimately spent about $23 million each on ads. By mid-October, a Detroit News poll showed Proposal 2 ahead, but only by a 43 to 42 percent margin, leaving 15 percent undecided.
It was then that the unions' miscalculation became evident. By forcing a vote on the issue they also focused attention on it. Suddenly, right-to-work the topic of candidate speeches and media coverage. People were forced to think about it.
On Election Day, it lost, 58-42 percent, a margin that shocked even supporters.
"Bob King put this on the agenda," Michigan Freedom Fund president Bob McNelly told the Washington Post after the election. "The whole state had a conversation. They lost."
It galvanized Republicans in the state capitol, where they controlled both houses. They decided to run the bill through in a post-election lame-duck session before public support wilted. About four weeks after the election, Snyder decided to back it.
On Dec. 6, it cleared the legislature. Four days later, Snyder signed it. Right-to-work had come to Michigan.