In the last few years, conservatives have made significant contributions to political organizations that have pushed the state to the right on core economic issues, and explicitly pushed right to work as a top goal (see the graph above):
• Americans for Prosperity–Michigan, the group founded by the billionaire Koch brothers, has a relatively new chapter in Michigan that has produced pamphlets extolling right-to-work reforms. This week, the group set up a heated tent outside the capital to support Snyder’s law and bused activists to Lansing to counter labor protesters.
• The Mackinac Center is a right-wing think tank in Michigan that issues pro-“right to work” reports, sponsors an anti-labor legal foundation and produces an array of other content, from a Pininterest page to short videos explaining why Michigan should adopt right-to-work. The center has gone on a media tour, touting Snyder’s move this week on CNN, Fox Business and much of the Michigan press. Notably, the group recently started two of its own media outlets, Michigan Capitol Confidential and Watchdog Wire Michigan.
These organizations are part of a more aggressive political force that is adept at controlling the twenty-four-hour news cycle and managing coalitions. Unlike ordinary business lobbies that simply support right-to-work, these advocacy groups go out and shape public opinion through broad messaging and content development, which in turn is used for organizing around policies.
Both AFP and the Mackinac Center are backed financially by the billionaire DeVos family, which has sought to control public policy debates through state-level nonprofits. Donors Trust, the nonprofit foundation used by wealthy conservative donors to anonymously finance activism on the right, has heavily funded AFP and Mackinac in the last three years. Doug DeVos chairs a nonprofit that has mobilized influential executives in the state to support right to work in Michigan.
The model isn’t new. In Wisconsin, Governor Scott Walker (R-WI) relied heavily on Americans for Prosperity Wisconsin and a state-based think tank called the MacIver Institute to build political support for his effort to curtail union rights. In Ohio, Governor John Kasich (R-OH) worked closely with another business-backed group, the Buckeye Institute, for his attempt to crush local unions.
On the left, the only comparable group in Michigan is Progress Michigan. Progress Michigan, which is backed by several local unions, brought together a coalition of progressives to oppose right-to-work, and demonstrated at the capital in Lansing this week. Although Progress Michigan has leveraged a sizable local union membership base to make up for its small budget, as the chart I created above shows, it hasn’t been able to compete financially with the right.
Now that the right-to-work fuse has been lit, establishment groups on both sides of the ideological divide have entered the fray, including local chambers of commerce and the Tea Party on the right, and unions on the left. Working America, the AFL-CIO affiliate, has helped mobilize people for protests today. But in terms of shaping the ideological debate—it’s important to realize that the anti-labor forces have worked for years through groups like Mackinac and AFP to set the stage.
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