Evaluating Michigan: Right-to-work legislation offers a glimmer of hope

Kelly Sloan

It can generally be accepted the fall of 2012 wasn’t a particularly good one for conservatives or our cause. But, as generally happens, there exist here and there glimmers of contrarian resistance.

One of these glimmers occurred in Michigan, whose governor signed right-to-work legislation allowing workers the right to associate with whomever they wish.

There are a few observations contained within this happy development. The most sensational one is the left is never content — and seemingly incapable of expressing discontent in civilized ways. The left in Michigan demonstrated the same anarchic impulses displayed by the Wisconsin protesters and Occupy movement, resorting to tactics more redolent of activities prevalent in the Third World or Weimar Germany than the United States.

Of course, one need not avert one’s gaze as far as Michigan to find this sort of behavior – witness the thuggery displayed in Boulder towards a spokesperson from EnCana attempting to speak to an audience on the practice of hydraulic fracturing.

A local news station caught the disgusting spectacle of a handful of environmentalist hoodlums and bullies spewing threats and obscenities at the woman, who required a protective police escort to her car. Sort of an environmentalist mini-Kristallnacht of the type which is becoming all too familiar.

Michigan offers more than just an illustration of savage behavior by those frustrated with any attempt to slow America’s descent, however. It is illustrative of a number things that ought to warm the heart of an embittered conservative heading into the winter (both literally and figuratively) — the concept of right-to-work legislation as a moral imperative.

At its core, RTW is an affirmation of the principle of the rights of the individual — in this instance the right of association. Really, all the Michigan law says (like other RTW laws in the U.S. say) is that a person has the right to join or not to join a group as he or she sees fit. Now, of course, this poses a threat to unions, which have long enjoyed the instrumentality of the state to mandate worker membership. But what it comes down to is whether or not the right of association applies in reverse — the right not to associate. That workers in the private sector have the right to unionize and bargain as a group is neither deniable nor challenged. But such a right does not — should not — translate neatly into a requirement. Insisting that a worker join a union is tantamount to insisting that a citizen present himself before an assembled crowd or town council meeting and either speak or be penalized, since people have a right to free speech and had better therefore use it.

I wonder how many in the AFL-CIO hierarchy would take to the streets to protect the “rights” of a church to compel the membership of those living within its parish as an expression of First Amendment rights?

Even more than the specific mechanics of the legislation is a wider principle at play here — the idea of federalism, the necessary supremacy of state-based solutions to problems.

The beauty of the American system of government has always been in its inherent decentralization, the concept that certain decisions are best left to the lowest feasible jurisdiction, usually the individual states. The idea has appeal in part because what works for Massachusetts won’t necessarily be a desirable solution in Montana. Because the states can act as laboratories, if it works in Massachusetts, well by golly, maybe we ought to try it in Montana after all. (Although this is an admittedly unlikely formulation, the reverse more plausibly being the case.)

That is what we see happening in Michigan. The home to American unionism, Michigan faces dire economic and social problems. So Michigan looks about for a solution and eyes rest on places like nearby Indiana, whose RTW reforms have created dramatic improvements in the employment situation in that state.

The result: Michigan exercises its right as a state to solve an economic problem by restoring to its workers the freedom to choose not to associate with organizations that placed debilitating distortions on the market; unchaining both the worker and the economy; and affirming, once again, the inseparable link between political and economic freedom.

A final takeaway: If there’s to be a glimmer of hope for conservative principles, for the triumph of ordered liberty over social architecture, then it probably rests more in state capitols, county seats and city halls than in Washington, D.C.