In a surprise that caught most observers off-guard, Michigan, the birthplace of the modern labor movement, will become a so-called right-to-work state in just a few days. The Nation’s John Nichols put up a post explaining how Governor Rick Snyder (R) quickly announced the bill earlier this week, rammed it through both legislative chambers within a day, and is on track to sign in it soon.

The measure, which will unravel unions in Michigan and likely lead to wage and benefit cuts down the road, has been long sought by powerful corporate interests and a small group of politically active billionaires.

How were they able to achieve such a success, in a historically union-friendly state like Michigan?

By most accounts, Snyder and his allies took everyone by surprise. On Tuesday evening, Snyder called a press conference to say he would be reversing himself, and would be throwing his weight for the first time behind making Michigan a right-to-work state. The day Snyder unveiled his new position on the controversial law, several business lobby groups endorsed the bill, and a $1 million television and radio ad campaign began airing in local media to encourage the public to support it. The Michigan Freedom Fund, the group airing the ad, was founded on November 5th by a campaign operative named Greg McNeilly. He is known locally for his work as GOP gubernatorial candidate Dick DeVos’s campaign manager in 2006, and as an employee to a DeVos company. [See the ad here]

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.

While liberals grimaced when Synder outspent his Democratic opponent in 2010 and rode the Tea Party wave into the governor’s office, he was also capitalizing on a political infrastructure that was years in the making. The increased funding to groups on the right has helped Republicans not only to gain more seats but also to advance broad policy changes.

For the chart above, I found budget numbers using annual tax disclosures, Americans for Prosperity’s Independent Auditor’s Report, and data from the Michigan Campaign Finance Network. Only the Mackinac Center has posted 2011 reports online. For AFP and Progress Michigan, I combined the budget information of both their c3 and c4 tax entities.

Update: The Mackinac Center’s Tom Gantert replied in a comment to note that I did not include the Center for Michigan in the story. Although the Center for Michigan has run a few blog posts critical of right-to-work, the center’s news site is largely neutral on the issue. I did not compare every single political group in the state that has ever weighed in on the issue, only the ones actively taking a leadership role in shaping the debate. A search of Labor Department L-M records does not reveal any labor union support for the Center for Michigan.

Michigan labor won't go down without a fight. Read Allison Kilkenny's report, "Thousands Expected to Protest Anti-Worker Legislation in Michigan."