March 6, 2015 | Commentary on Jobs and Labor Policy, Labor, Wisconsin

Right-To-Work Laws Expand In Midwest As Jobs Elixir

Wisconsin is poised this week to become the 25th "right-to-work state," ending forced unionization and allowing individual workers to decide if they want to join a union or not.

The Wisconsin Senate just recently passed right-to-work, and our sources in Madison say that the House, which is controlled by Republicans, will enact a similar law in the days ahead.

Republican Gov. Scott Walker, a leading presidential candidate, is sure to sign the bill when it gets to his desk. "This isn't anti-union," insists Walker. "It restores worker rights and brings jobs back to Wisconsin."

Some 3,000 liberal protesters stormed the Capitol in Madison over the weekend to reverse the momentum for the new law. This isn't Walker's first dust-up with union bosses. Four years ago, nearly 100,000 activists grabbed nationwide headlines when they protested his reforms in Wisconsin's collective bargaining process with public employee unions.

If the new law passes, Wisconsin would join two other blue-collar, industrial Midwestern states — Michigan and Indiana — to recently adopt right-to-work. "If you had told me five years ago that right-to-work would become law in Indiana, Michigan and Wisconsin, I wouldn't have thought it was even remotely possible," says economist Arthur Laffer.

Laffer and I have conducted substantial economic research showing three times the pace of jobs gains in right-to-work states than in the states with forced union rules that predominate in deep blue states such as California, New York and Illinois.

In the 2003-13 period, jobs were up by 8.6% in right-to-work states, and up only 3.7% in forced union states. Most of the southern states, with the exception of Kentucky, are right-to-work

Many auto jobs in recent decades have moved out of Michigan and Ohio and into states such as Texas, Alabama and South Carolina, due in part to right-to-work laws in Dixie.

But as union power recedes in the Midwestern states, many of the region's governors see factory jobs returning to their backyards. "Right to work is already lowering unemployment in Indiana and causing a manufacturing revival here," says Gov. Mike Pence.

This jobs story explains why right-to-work activists are confident several other target states, including West Virginia, Ohio and Kentucky, are politically on the cusp of going their way. Several local areas in Kentucky are already moving to right-to-work at the county level. The New Hampshire legislature passed right-to-work in 2012, but the law was vetoed by the governor.

The right-to-work trend could substantially reduce union clout nationally. Walker notes that when Wisconsin recently began requiring approval from workers before they could take money out of their paychecks, revenues at some of the unions fell by as much as 80%.

Liberal interest groups and Democrats are blasting this move to adopt right-to-work a "declaration of war against unions," as MSNBC recently put it. Jared Bernstein, a former chief economist to Vice President Joe Biden, complains that right-to-work weakens union negotiating power by allowing "non-dues-paying members to freeload off the contracts negotiated by the unions."

Union-funded groups are now making the spurious argument that workers are not required to join the union in non-right-to-work states.

Here is how Bernstein puts it: "Let's also be clear about what goes on in non-RTW states, as anti-union forces consistently distort the current reality. In non-RTW states, no one has to join a union. There have been no 'closed shops' in America for more than 20 years. When RTW advocates say they're fighting against 'forced unionism,' they are making stuff up. There's no such thing."

Technically, what Bernstein says is true. No one is compelled to join a union. But in a forced union state, if you work at a unionized facility and you don't join the union, you will most likely be fired for not paying full union fees. In most states, those dues are taken directly out of the worker paycheck without the worker's consent. This is the very definition of coercion.

The Right to Work Foundation Committee has found that as much as 80% of these costs are not even for organizing and contract negotiation purposes but rather for political and other extraneous expenses. Liberals argue that workers cannot be forced to pay for partisan political activities, but these fees are nearly impossible to win back after Big Labor snatches them from the paycheck.

This is why union bosses so ardently oppose "paycheck protection" measures that prohibit states from withholding union fees for political purposes. Most workers choose not to contribute to these partisan campaigns when they are given a choice.

One question the union bosses have had a difficult time answering is: If unions are so beneficial to workers, why do workers have to be compelled to join them?

Jonathan Williams, a budget expert at ALEC, an organization of conservative state legislators, insists that this is a "basic right-of-association issue. Unions shouldn't be allowed to compel workers to join and pay dues to groups they don't want to."

Union membership is shrinking, especially in the private sector. The latest numbers show only 6.6% of private-sector employees working for a union. The number was about four times higher in the 1950s and '60s. Only in the public sector have unions been gaining strength and members. Overall, about one in nine American workers is in a union.

President Obama tried to reverse the decline in union membership by moving away from secret ballot elections and instead a "card check" system. Under this system unions could become certified once a majority of employees in a workplace signed a card supporting the union. This system subjects workers to intimidation tactics by unions. Congress rejected this change back in 2010.

Republicans legislators and governors who generally support right to work have the voters on their side. A recent Gallup poll found 71% of Americans agree with right-to-work laws.

 - Moore is distinguished visiting fellow at the Heritage Foundation's Institute for Economic Freedom and Opportunity.

About the Author

Stephen Moore Distinguished Visiting Fellow
Project for Economic Growth

Originally appeared in Investor's Business Daily