Right-to-Work Laws Top Republican Wish Lists

With the recent addition of West Virginia, a majority of states now make it harder for unions to collect dues. More could soon be added to the list.
by | February 25, 2016
Union members in Indiana protest right-to-work legislation, which the state enacted in 2012. (AP/Darron Cummings)

Earlier this month, West Virginia became the 26th state to enact a right-to-work law. It won't be the last.

Right-to-work laws bar labor unions from requiring private-sector employees to join and pay dues. Such laws have been in place, primarily in Southern states, since the late 1940s. But over the past four years, states that were formerly union strongholds -- Michigan, Wisconsin and West Virginia -- have adopted the laws as well. Indiana also passed a right-to-work law in 2012.

"It's an old idea whose time has come," said Gary Chaison, a professor of industrial relations at Clark University in Worcester, Mass.

Increasingly, Republican governors are embracing right-to-work as a way to attract companies to their states.

"When we recruit, that is one of the first questions: What does your labor force look like and are you a right-to-work state?" New Mexico Gov. Susana Martinez told the Albuquerque Chamber of Commerce last month.

Some companies won't consider a state for relocation or expansion if it doesn't have a right-to-work law. Supporters of right-to-work -- who are trying to rebrand the concept as "worker freedom" legislation -- claim such laws have improved the economies where they are in place.

Labor unions, however, contend that right-to-work not only hurts them but workers in general. By making it harder for them to recruit, right-to-work laws diminish their ranks and thus make it more difficult for them to push worker-friendly policies, such as minimum wage increases and paid sick leave requirements.

"That's all right-to-work is about: trying to undermine the funding for unions to make it harder for them to be a factor," said Ross Eisenbrey, vice president of the Economic Policy Institute, a think tank in Washington, D.C., that receives financial backing from unions.

The renewed enthusiasm for right-to-work comes as the U.S. Supreme Court considers the separate issue of whether government employees can be forced to pay union dues -- something 23 states allow. Given the vacancy left by the death of Justice Antonin Scalia, it's unclear whether the issue will be resolved this term. State right-to-work laws have also had their days in court and survived challenges in Indiana, Michigan and Wisconsin.

Unions can still organize in right-to-work states, but they have to convince individual employees that putting roughly 2 percent of their income toward dues is worthwhile.

Under a right-to-work regime, "unions do have to work harder to maintain membership," said Jim Waters, president of the Bluegrass Institute, a free-market think tank in Kentucky. "They can't rely on union membership growth and dues simply because a company has a union presence."

While overall union membership has stagnated in the last few years, it declined in the states that recently enacted right-to-work laws. Since 1983, when comparable data was first collected by the federal Bureau of Labor Statistics, the total share of the workforce that belongs to unions has declined roughly 5 percentage points, from 20.1 percent to 14.8 percent.

Advocates on either side of the issue come armed with studies that underscore the worth of their respective positions. Some studies suggest right-to-work states enjoy better job growth, while others indicate wages are driven down.

The debate is as much about politics as it is about economics.

In Missouri, legislators passed a right-to-work bill last year, but Democratic Gov. Jay Nixon vetoed it. Now, the state's gubernatorial candidates are weighing in.

"As governor, I will make Missouri the 27th right-to-work state," Catherine Hanaway, a Republican candidate for governor, wrote last week in a fundraising appeal.

The surest defense against passage of right-to-work laws has been having Democrats control part of the political process. Despite Gov. Martinez' advocacy in New Mexico, the idea died in the Democratic-controlled state Senate last year and may not come back to life any time soon.

"I honestly think we're going to get a bigger majority of Democrats this fall," said John Henry, president of the New Mexico Federation of Labor. "This won't be a subject of conversation any more, not in New Mexico."

But in Kentucky, Republicans hope they can erase the Democratic majority in the state House this year, which is the sole remaining obstacle to passage of right-to-work, a priority of GOP Gov. Matt Bevin. With the issue stalled at the state level, a dozen counties in Kentucky have passed local right-to-work laws. On Feb. 3, a federal judge threw out Hardin County's law, ruling that only states have the power to opt out of federal law governing collection of union dues.

That decision will be appealed. But if Republicans are able to erase the Democrats' slender lead in the House, it won't matter either way because Bevin will sign a right-to-work law at the earliest possible opportunity.

"Unions won't like what is about to be said, but here it is: Kentucky will become a right-to-work state," the Bowling Green Daily News editorialized after the Hardin County ruling.