February 3, 2015 | Commentary on Jobs and Labor Policy, Labor Regulation

Bruce Rauner Is Trying Kentucky’s Approach to Right-to-Work: Do It Locally

Newly elected Illinois governor Bruce Rauner is already trying to shake up his state: He just proposed local right-to-work laws, albeit at the local rather than state level. As the Associated Press reports:

"The states that are already growing don’t force unionization into their economy," Rauner told an audience at Richland Community College in Decatur, a city he said could benefit from such a plan. "I’m not advocating Illinois becoming a right-to-work state, but I do advocate [for] local governments being allowed to decide whether they’re right-to-work zones."

Unions are predictably apoplectic about losing the power to force workers to pay dues. But the proposal would attract jobs and investment to many downstate counties. Those counties certainly need it. Over the past decade total employment grew just one-fifth of one percentage point in Illinois — an order of magnitude less than all neighboring states, thanks to high taxes and an unfriendly business climate.

Workplace-freedom laws would help attract them back. Many businesses prefer to operate in jurisdictions that have them. Of course, management gets the union it deserves — companies that treat their workers poorly will get unionized, with or without right-to-work. But such laws discourage unions from targeting companies that treat their workers well. Unionizing a firm means less money when dues are voluntary, so union organizing drops sharply once states pass right-to-work.

Economic-development consultants report half their clients will only consider locating in right-to-work states. Unsurprisingly jobs have grown twice as fast in the past decade in right-to-work states as in states with compulsory dues.

Right-to-work stands little chance of passing the liberal Illinois legislature. But the Illinois constitution grants broad “home rule” powers to any Illinois city with more than 25,000 residents, allowing them to regulate a broad variety of topics, including public welfare. Stopping unions from forcing workers to pay for unwanted services falls within that definition. Especially since the state constitution specifies that home-rule powers “shall be construed liberally.”

Five Kentucky counties encompassing over a quarter million residents have used similar home-rule powers to enact their own local right-to-work ordinances and these local measures have already begun attracting businesses. The attorney of Warren County (which contrains Bowling Green), Amy Milliken, spoke at the Heritage Foundation earlier this week. Milliken — a Democrat — reports that since the county passed right-to-work, two major economic-development-site selectors have contacted them about clients interested in locating there. Both cited the new right-to-work law.

Many distressed downstate Illinois counties could use a similar boost.

 - James Sherk is senior policy analyst in labor economics at The Heritage Foundation.

About the Author

James Sherk Research Fellow, Labor Economics
Center for Data Analysis

Originally appeared in National Review Online