The United Auto Workers were "blindsided" by Michigan's new 'right-to-work' legislation, union president Bob King told msnbc Tuesday, shortly after Gov. Rick Snyder signed the bills into law. In fact, the union had entered what King described as amicable talks with Snyder only days before, and the governor—who had previously opposed right-to-work—offered no indication that his views had changed.
"We had made a lot of progress, which he and the staff, everybody, felt good about," said King. "But then all of a sudden, he flipped on us, and we heard that he was going to sign this bill."
Snyder's public position on right-to-work turned into a ringing endorsement, seemingly overnight. Suddenly, he was championing right-to-work as "Freedom to Work," calling it "pro-worker," and saying it would create "more and better jobs in Michigan."
To explain the shift, Snyder has said that the issue simply gained "critical mass." But lately, a well-funded conservative political machine, with ties to the Koch family and other wealthy backers, as well as to the notorious conservative lobby group ALEC, has been flexing its considerable muscle. What looked like a spontaneous shift in Michigan labor policy had been planned for months—and the success of the right-to-work push could foretell future efforts nationwide.
Rep. Tom Shirkey, a Republican, described the passage of right-to-work to msnbc as a "big team effort."
"There's a long list of very public special interest groups and associations that have been advocating for labor freedom for a long time," Shirkey said in an interview Wednesday. "There's also a long list of people who would just as soon stay behind the scenes who have been very supportive. And I'm just privileged to be one small piece in this very big puzzle."
One key piece in the puzzle: The Mackinac Public Policy Center, a Michigan-based non-profit that has been publishing reports about the benefits of right-to-work legislation for more than two decades. The organization is well-connected; its president, Joseph G. Lehman, is a former VP of communications at the Cato Institute in Washington, D.C. And its director of labor policy, F. Vincent Vernuccio—a former Bush administration official—has been lauded by Fox News' Stuart Varney as a "top union watchdog."
Mackinac's influence is local, but its network is nationwide. The think tank is a member of the State Policy Network, which Mackinac spokesperson Ted O'Neil told msnbc was something of a "sister think tank." Mother Jones' Andy Kroll, who has reported extensively on SPN's activities, has written that it's behind "one of the largest assaults on American unions in recent history."
Because of its tax status, Mackinac can't lobby, but makes its influence felt in other ways.
"What my reporting turned up was other kinds of pressure," Kroll said on The Ed Show in April 2011. "It comes in policy briefings; some think tanks can lobby lawmakers. So it's not quite campaign contributions, but it's similar."
Mackinac also has ties to another, more notorious conservative network with national influence: the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC), the group most famous for pushing the "papers, please" bill in Arizona. Earlier this year, at the ALEC Task Force Summit in Charlotte, North Carolina, Mackinac put three pieces of "model legislation" before ALEC's Commerce, Insurance, and Economic Development Task Force. One of those bills was already Michigan state law—all three were anti-union.
Now, model legislation from ALEC's countrywide network may have found its way back into Michigan. Based on a side-by-side analysis from the Center for Media and Democracy, Salon reported on Tuesday that Michigan's new right-to-work legislation "appears to pull language directly from ALEC’s model right-to-work bill."
Mackinac also accomplished another major coup in 2011, when Snyder signed what one supporter called a "financial martial law" bill allowing "emergency financial managers" extensive power to privatize and union-bust. (The Rachel Maddow Show has reported extensively on the the anti-democratic power grab that the law enabled in the town of Benton Harbor.) Kroll wrote that the Mackinac Center had spent years "pushing for the most controversial provisions in Snyder's bill."
Who funds Mackinac? In tax records obtained by Kroll, two big names stand out: the Charles G. Koch Foundation and the Dick and Betsy DeVos Foundation. Charles G. Koch is, of course, one half of the influential Koch Brothers. And it's no surprise that the Koch-backed Americans for Prosperity (AFP) had a major presence rallying support for the bills in Lansing this week.
But among Michigan power brokers, DeVos might well be the bigger name. Dick DeVos is the son of Richard DeVos, the founder of Amway. In 2006, after achieving success in the corporate world, DeVos the younger ran for governor of Michigan as a Republican. He lost—by a rather decisive 14%—to Democrat Jennifer Granholm.
Since then, he's worked to exert influence from the outside. Michigan Senate Minority Leader Gretchen Whitmer, a Democrat told msnbc that some of her Republican colleagues complained to her privately that DeVos was twisting their arms over the anti-union legislation.
"I spoke with someone in Republican leadership who was angry because these heavy-handed tactics were being used with the members," she said. Republicans told her, she said, that DeVos had "threatened primaries, threatened to spend whatever it takes to beat them if they don't support these bills."
Whitmer also cited the involvement of real estate mogul Ron Weiser, the former chair of Michigan's Republican Party and George W. Bush's ambassador to Slovakia. Salon's Josh Eidelson dug up video from 2007 in which Weiser describes working on passing right-to-work in Michigan "full-time." His comrades in the fight, he says in the footage, include the Michigan wing of AFP—and, of course, none other than Dick DeVos.
Shirkey, the GOP legislator, confirmed to msnbc that he had spoken with Weiser about the effort.
"I had a number of conversations with Ron Weiser," said Shirkey. "Ron, I consider a good friend. He's a strong advocate for labor freedom, and frankly, he started a pretty significant process a couple years ago on this." Shirkey said he had not spoken with DeVos.
Both AFP and Mackinac deny any meaningful role in getting right-to-work passed. AFP's Michigan state director Scott Hagerstrom described himself as "surprised but very pleased" to see the legislation come up.
"Right-to-work has been around for a long time," said O'Neil. "We certainly didn't invent it, but certainly we're glad to see good public policy move forward."
Watch Ed Schultz and Andy Kroll talk about the conservative network behind right-to-work on the December 11 edition of msnbc's The Ed Show.