From Long Shot to Victory

Larry Reed recalls right-to-work fight

Oh, how well I remember this piece in the Detroit Free Press from 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 we had called for a right-to-work law for Michigan, 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 called the Center for the Study of Market Alternatives. We worked on many freedom-related issues including right-to-work 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 right-to-work 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."

Many good people came to be involved, but no honest or thorough history of how Michigan ended the scourge of compulsory unionism can be told without citing the indispensable role of the Mackinac Center. 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?

One of the chief architects of our long-term strategy was my best friend and, before he died in a plane crash in June 2003, Mackinac’s senior vice president, Joe Overton. This great triumph for liberty is a tribute to him as much as it is to any person or any organization. Joe, we did it — just as you knew we would, sooner or later!

When I moved on from the Mackinac Center to the Foundation for Economic Education in September 2008, it was with the confidence that the lofty goals of the Center were in good hands and would not change.

The extraordinary and historic events of December 2012 confirm that. From my position at FEE and my home in Georgia (happily also a proud right-to-work state), I congratulate my former colleagues at the Mackinac Center and all those many others across the state of Michigan who fought the fight!

Larry Reed is President Emeritus of the Mackinac Center for Public Policy.