Management & Labor

Despite Union Resistance, Right-to-Work Momentum Is Growing

Several states have already passed right-to-work laws this year -- and their reach may finally expand into the Northeast.
by | February 13, 2017
Protesters fill the Kentucky Capitol rotunda to oppose a right-to-work bill that was eventually signed. (AP/Timothy D. Easley)

*Update on Feb. 17 at 9:15 a.m. EST: The New Hampshire House rejected the right-to-work bill 200-177.

This week, New Hampshire could become the first state in the Northeast to pass a right-to-work law. But even its supporters aren't betting that it will happen.

"If we're successful, it will be with a handful of votes," said Dave Juvet, senior vice president of the Business & Industry Association of New Hampshire, which supports the legislation. "There's significant opposition from Democrats in the House but also a significant number of Republicans I would characterize as pro-labor or pro-union."

The state Senate narrowly passed a right-to-work bill last month, but the state House Labor Committee voted to reject it last week. Nevertheless, a vote of the full House is scheduled for Thursday. Gov. Chris Sununu, a Republican elected in November, supports the legislation.

In right-to-work states, employees don't have to pay union dues, even if their workplace is represented by unions. There are now 28 states with right-to-work laws on the books, the most recent being enacted in Missouri last week and Kentucky last month.

If right-to-work fails in New Hampshire, it will be a rare setback. The issue was essentially moribund for half a century, but six states have passed right-to-work laws over the past five years.

"Twenty-five years ago, right-to-work was not a marquee issue, but support has been steadily growing," said Mark Mix, president of the National Right to Work Committee. "The battle over public-sector unionization in Wisconsin helped set the table for this."

In 2011, Gov. Scott Walker and other Wisconsin Republicans pushed through a law that stripped collective bargaining rights from most government workers. Union membership in the state, which represented 14 percent of workers in 2011, had plummetted to 8 percent in 2015.

Right-to-work has become almost a foregone conclusion when the GOP takes full control over the political branches of a state government. A national bill has been introduced in Congress, where Republicans hold the majorities, but Democrats would be certain to filibuster if it reaches the Senate floor.

"Republicans know it's in their interest to weaken the biggest institution that supports Democrats," said Ross Eisenbrey, vice president of the pro-union Economic Policy Institute.

Right-to-work laws hurt unions by creating a "free rider" problem. Workers can reap the rewards of unionization, including wages and benefits set by collective bargaining agreements, without having to pay dues.

Where right-to-work laws exist, union membership is generally lower. In Michigan, for example, 14.4 percent of the workforce belongs to a union -- down from about 20 percent at the start of the decade. The state passed a right-to-work law in 2013.

Of course, union membership had already been in decline, partially due to globalization moving many union jobs overseas. In 1960, close to 50 percent of Michigan's workforce belonged to a union.

But, said Gary Chaison, a professor of industrial relations at Clark University, "right-to-work laws result in a further loss of members, and because union dues are the primary source of union revenue, the decline continues and unions cannot afford to organize new members."

Union membership isn't dropping in every right-to-work state, though. Mix, the National Right to Work Committee president, pointed out that it increased last year in five right-to-work states.

Right-to-work supporters also argue that this approach aids the economy. Juvet said that many companies won't locate in a state that doesn't have a right-to-work law. But, in fact, economic growth in states without right-to-work laws often outpaces growth in states that have them.

"They made people believe that all of these jobs were going to rush into West Virginia when it passed," said state Rep. Mike Caputo, a longtime union organizer. "That certainly hasn't happened."

Maybe one reason it hasn't happened is that the law there has yet to take effect. The law has been blocked since its passage last year, due to a pending court challenge.

Unions are also hoping to block the right-to-work in Missouri. They have begun collecting signatures for a veto referendum that would be put before voters next year. If they can gather roughly 140,000 signatures by the end of August, the law would be put on hold until voters have their say.

But unions everywhere know they're fighting an uphill battle.

Last week, an attorney in California filed a lawsuit against the SEIU on behalf of government workers who don't want to pay dues that go toward political activities. This signals that union foes will continue pressing their case in court.

The issue has already reached the U.S. Supreme Court, which deadlocked, 4-4, in a case last year that would have stripped public employee unions of their ability to demand fees from nonunion members. But the result could be different in a similar case before a full, conservative-leaning court.

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