Solidarity designed by Thibault Geoffroy, from The Noun Project

Solidarity designed by Thibault Geoffroy, from The Noun Project

When I moved to west Michigan, one of the things that struck me the most were distinct cultural differences between the different sides of the state. While I was pursuing a master’s degree at Calvin Theological Seminary, I worked for a while in the receiving department at Bissell, Inc. I remember being surprised, nay, shocked, that a manufacturer like Bissell was not a union shop. (All those jobs are somewhere else now, in any case.)

Before attending Michigan State as an undergrad, I had lived in Detroit, and although I never had a union job myself, the cultural expectations of organized labor were (and still are) deeply ingrained on the east side of the state. My dad is a longtime editor at a suburban newspaper, and one of the reasons he still has a job amid the economic downturn and the upheavals facing that industry is his membership in the guild.

But things really are different on this side of the state. That’s one reason why the protests taking place today in Lansing, the centrally-located state capital, are symbolic of two sides of the state, in many ways divided by culture, economy, and politics. As to the latter, consider some statewide candidates for public office in recent memory that haven’t done so well when trying to move beyond west Michigan, including Pete Hoekstra, Dick DeVos, Dick Posthumus. The fight over Right to Work legislation in Michigan is, in this way, a tale of two Michigans.

It is also a tale about two paths forward for Michigan, though. On the one side is the state’s historic identification with Big Labor and the Big Three. On the other side is a Michigan that embraces enterprising innovation and entrepreneurial competition.

The Wall Street Journal editorialized yesterday on this topic (HT: Ross Emmett), and captures the essence of the choice facing Michigan: “Unions loathe right to work because they know that many workers would rather not join a union.”

I think that the right to organize and therefore unions are fundamental to flourishing societies. But what concerns me is that the argument against Right to Work is not about this fundamental right to organize, but rather about protecting the entrenched and embedded political interests of a particular kind of union.

There is a world of difference between voluntary union membership and mandatory, government-enforced, union membership. If the former is akin to something like the freedom of religion, then the latter is more like the government establishment of a particular religion or church. What we need is the separation of Union and State in the way that we have historically had free churches. We need to disestablish labor in the same way that we have disestablished religion in America, while simultaneously protecting the right to organize and join a union as well as the right to worship and express our religious convictions.

Michigan’s track record over the last decade or so in creating a jobs-friendly environment has not been very good. Michigan is a state with wonderful natural beauty and great people. It has a lot going for it. I have often wondered why a state with so much isn’t more attractive to more people.

One of the big reasons, I think, is that the government has gotten in the way, and artificially made Michigan less attractive to investment and job-creation, and therefore made Michigan a less attractive place to live. We don’t have a major urban center like Chicago to attract young professionals. We have had really destructive taxes, like the Single Business Tax, which make the state uniquely unfriendly to industries. We have had a bad legacy of government picking winners, whether it be the auto industry, or more recently alternative energy and biotechnology.

Michigan was the only state to lose population during the decade covered by the last census.

Right to Work represents a different, better way forward for Michigan. As the WSJ observes,

Michigan would become the 24th right-to-work state and it could be the best thing to happen to its economy since the internal combustion engine. Michigan still has the nation’s sixth highest state jobless rate at 9.1%, and it had one of the lowest rates of personal income growth between 1977 and 2011. A flood of economic evidence shows that right-to-work states have done better at attracting investment and jobs than have more heavily unionized states.

But recognizing the freedom of the worker to choose his or her membership in a union is not just a good thing to do economically. It is also the right thing to do morally: “The best case for right to work is moral: the right of an individual to choose. Union chiefs want to coerce workers to join and pay dues that they then funnel to politicians who protect union power. Right to work breaks this cycle of government-aided monopoly union power for the larger economic good.”