Now that the Michigan legislature and governorship are in Democratic hands for the first time in almost 40 years, repeal of the state’s “right-to-work” law has become a high priority backed by organized labor. As the new session got underway in January, Democrats introduced bills to repeal the law that has been on the books since 2012. The legislation passed the House this week and now heads to the Senate for a final vote.
That move will likely trigger a ballot measure fight in 2024 backed by business and right-wing groups to block repeal of right-to-work by enshrining it in the Michigan constitution, according to Michigan Bridge. So-called right-to-work laws prohibit unions from requiring workers to pay dues, even though they benefit from the better wages and benefits the unions negotiate.
In this heated context, the Mackinac Center for Public Policy, a right-wing think tank that was instrumental in getting the anti-union legislation passed, announced the creation of a new spin-off last month that is legally able to raise and spend unlimited amounts of dark money to influence legislation and ballot measures.
Known as the Mackinac Center Action, the new advocacy group is a 501(c)(4) nonprofit, which means that it will not have to adhere to the lobbying limits and ban on electoral activity that apply to its 501(c)(3) parent organization. And, unlike super PACs, Mackinac Action will not be required to disclose who funds its operations.
Fueled by Koch, the Bradley Foundation, and other right-wing billionaires and foundations, the Mackinac Center is a powerful force in Michigan that has long led the charge to break the back of organized labor in the state.
“Our goal is [to] outlaw government collective bargaining in Michigan,” one Mackinac staff member bluntly stated in 2011.
A year later, it had largely achieved that goal by helping to ram through right-to-work legislation during a lame duck session in December 2012. The organization took full credit for the win, boasting on its site that it had been pushing for right-to-work since 1990 and had posted more than 500 “articles, blog posts, special essays and news [clips] generated by Mackinac Center analysts” backing the legislation. The following spring, the right-wing State Policy Network (SPN) presented its highest award to far-right big donor Dick DeVos and the Mackinac Center for their pivotal role in making Michigan a right-to-work state.
SPN has affiliates, including the Mackinac Center, in all 50 states that play an integral role in making sure that legislation gets passed in state houses—by attracting media attention, providing academic legitimacy when called on to testify at hearings, and producing “studies” or model legislation. That legislation often comes in the form of model bills drafted by corporate lobbyists and lawmakers at SPN’s sister organization, the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC).
Mackinac has not only succeeded on the right-to-work front but also in advocating more broadly for pro-business, free market policies and against governmental regulations on everything from healthcare to the environment and education. Its fight against the Michigan Education Association on the issue of charter schools prompted that group to conclude that the “Mackinac Center receives attention not because of its objective scholarship but because it showers the media and governmental officials at all levels with publications designed to promote a conservative agenda [and because it] has shown great resourcefulness in creating new ways to spread its message.”
In 2021, Mackinac posted revenues of $15.6 million, making it one of the largest right-wing state policy groups in the country.
Mackinac Action does not have its own website, and the press release on its priorities links back to the Mackinac Center’s “action agenda” page. That agenda includes “revitalizing healthcare,” “advocating safe and effective energy solutions,” and “protect[ing] Michigan workers”—which this year means fighting to hold on to the right-to-work law it originally pushed to pass.
An example of Mackinac Action’s potential can be seen in Florida, where the SPN group Foundation for Government Accountability, a 501(c)(3) organization, also has a 501(c)(4) sister organization, the Opportunity Solutions Project, which lobbies in state capitols to prevent Medicaid expansion for the working poor and attack corporate investment strategies that consider environmental, social, and governance (ESG) factors. As is likely in Michigan as well, the two organizations share staff and pay salaries and other expenses by pulling from both their 501(c)(3) and 501(c)(4) revenue streams.