Don't Look Now

Right-to-Work Is in the Overton Window

At the risk of sounding a bit wonky, the Overton Window is an important idea around the Mackinac Center. The concept of the window was developed by, and eventually named after, our late Vice President Joe Overton, who observed that at any given point in time certain political positions were plausible and mainstream while others were considered too extreme — whether conservative or liberal, libertarian or socialist — to be worthy of much discussion. In fact, it can be dangerous to be too closely associated with a cause that lies outside that range.

Politicians, lobbyists and pundits tend to limit themselves to discussing ideas that are in that window of what is considered mainstream, respectable and politically feasible. The important thing is that if one can shift that window so that includes certain ideas while excluding others, then one shifts the entire scope of political debate. An idea, such as right-to-work, that had been unthinkable can suddenly come into play.

There is some disagreement over how much elected officials can shift the window, but at a minimum they are a fairly good barometer of where the window is at any given time. An individual politician might embrace an extreme position every now and then, but when the caucus of a major political party publicly promotes a new idea, that’s a pretty good indicator that something has gone from being extreme to mainstream.

Well, it looks like right-to-work has gone mainstream in Michigan. The House GOP caucus is now promoting legislation that would allow localities to create “right-to-work zones,” in which unions and employers cannot make agreements forcing workers to join or financially support a union as a term of employment. Right-to-work laws make unions more accountable to the men and women they represent, and states with right-to-work laws have long had stronger economies, more jobs, and growing incomes for families.

At this point it’s hard to say how serious the House GOP caucus is about the legislation. There’s no guarantee they will follow up in any meaningful way. The local right-to-work proposal is not without legal pitfalls. But the important thing is that the leadership of the GOP in Lansing thinks, at a minimum, that it can score political points by promoting right-to-work protections. That puts worker freedom in the Overton Window of respectable and politically plausible ideas, which is a big shift for a state in which unions have held sway for so long.