Understanding the Contours and Limits of the New Conservative Milieu: Right-to-Work in Michigan and Ohio

Johnnie Lotesta, Brown University

Recent research has emphasized the role of national social movement organizations, libertarian think tanks, and corporate donor networks in pushing the Republican Party to the libertarian right. However, existing accounts leave unexplained the subnational conditions that advance or constrain the policy agendas of this new conservative milieu at the state level. Given that these groups often organize around state-level policy change, how do state political and civic infrastructures facilitate or constrain their success? I examine this question through a comparative-historical analysis of right-to-work (RTW) laws in Michigan and Ohio, two states where RTW was long seen as too far right for Republican legislative programs. Based on ninety stakeholder interviews and extensive archive research, I show how variations between Michigan and Ohio’s small business communities and state labor movements lead to divergent RTW outcomes in these two, otherwise similar, states. In Michigan, a statewide business-PAC network organized by the state Chamber of Commerce recruited pro-business Republicans to remake the Michigan Republican party from the inside out. When Michigan labor organizers mounted a campaign to protect collective bargaining in the state constitution, this new PAC network joined with inter-state think tank and conservative advocacy organizations to press Michigan Republicans to pass a state RTW law in December 2012. In Ohio, however, the absence of a politicized business movement undermined conservative Republicans’ abilities to cultivate support for a public employee RTW law in 2011. When it came time to defend Ohio’s new law from repeal, the state’s Republican apparatus splintered in the face of a broad, bi-partisan labor campaign that defeated the new law in a repeal referendum. Thus, this article shows how inter-state divergences in the organization and politicization of small business communities and state labor movements lead to contrasting outcomes for a key policy agenda of the new conservative movement.

No extended abstract or paper available

 Presented in Session 126. Parties & American Class Politics