If Wisconsin adopts a right-to-work law next year, it will join other union strongholds like Michigan and Indiana in weakening private sector union strength with a goal of spurring the economy.
Although it’s too early to tell what impact the 2012 laws in those Midwestern states have had, studies of the other 22 states with right-to-work laws reveal mixed results, with ongoing disagreement among academic researchers and economic think tanks about the impact on jobs, wages and private investment.
There is broader agreement that such laws reduce union membership, which opponents argue is the goal of right-to-work. But even there the evidence is muddled by the general decline in union membership over decades. Even without the law in place, Wisconsin’s private sector union participation rate was 8.2 percent in 2013, down from 19.8 percent in 1983.
“Folks have strong feelings about right-to-work laws on both sides,” said Georgia State University labor economist Barry Hirsch. “I’ve always felt the proponents and opponents overrate it. It has never struck me as being so important as both sides emphasize.”
One impact remains clear: Enacting right-to-work would give conservatives another major victory over unions, a key supporter of Democrats, and burnish Gov. Scott Walker’s union-busting credentials as he contemplates a bid for the 2016 GOP presidential nomination.
Walker has called right-to-work legislation a “distraction,” though like Michigan Gov. Rick Snyder, who ultimately signed the state law, he won’t say whether he would sign or veto such a bill if it came to his desk. But he has acknowledged he supports such laws, and observers expect him to sign a bill if he can.
Right-to-work laws “have this highly symbolic value in allowing business groups and conservative politicians to declare open season on unions,” said Barry Eidlin, a sociologist at Rutgers School of Management and Labor Relations and expert on labor unions and labor politics. “It’s sort of used as a political rallying cry.”
What the law does
Republican lawmakers haven’t introduced a Wisconsin bill yet, though Senate Majority Leader Scott Fitzgerald, R-Juneau, said the issue must be dealt with early in the session.
He has suggested exemptions could be carved out for certain unions such as operating engineers, but acknowledged such an untried approach could expose the law to court challenges.
Assembly Speaker Robin Vos, R-Rochester, said he doesn’t expect his chamber to take up a bill until the Senate passes its own version. He opposes any exemptions.
Rep. Chris Kapenga, R-Delafield, who plans to introduce a bill in the Assembly, said he first became an advocate for right-to-work as a 19-year-old employed by a unionized electrical contractor.
When he saw his first paycheck included a union dues deduction, he complained to a company official that he didn’t ask to join the union.
“She said, ‘You don’t have a choice; we’re a union shop,’ ” Kapenga said. “That really bothered me at 19 years old. That’s not right; I shouldn’t be forced to be in the union.”
Most private sector union contracts cover all members in a workplace, whether they voted for the union or not. Workers typically have union dues deducted from their paychecks, though under federal law they can already opt out of the portion that funds the union’s political activity.
Right-to-work laws typically prohibit automatic dues collections and protect employees from being fired for not paying the share of dues that cover the cost of bargaining.
Unions oppose that arrangement because it allows employees to benefit from the compensation negotiated in a union contract without having to pay for it, said Paul Secunda, a Marquette University Law School professor and director of its labor and employment program.
“It makes it much harder for unions to exist, if they can’t charge everyone for their services,” Secunda said. “Inevitably they have to raise fees for those who are supporting the union, and that makes them less popular.”
Proponents of right-to-work say federal law allows unions to set up members-only contracts with employers, which would leave non-members to negotiate their own salary and benefits, but unions say the law requires them to represent all employees at the bargaining table and in any workplace disputes.
Oklahoma AFL-CIO president Jim Curry said in that right-to-work state, employees who don’t pay dues have even sued unions for not doing a good enough job representing them.
Observers say Wisconsin already has experience with right-to-work provisions for public employees as a result of the Act 10 changes to collective bargaining. Public union membership has subsequently declined.
But public employees also faced simultaneous cuts in take-home pay, as the state required higher pension and health insurance premium contributions. And Act 10 prohibits almost all aspects of collective bargaining, diminishing the union’s value to members.
A right-to-work law wouldn’t limit a union’s ability to bargain with employers.
Phil Neuenfeldt, president of the AFL-CIO of Wisconsin, said his organization plans to fight any proposal with public education campaigns, phone calls to legislators and participation in public hearings.
“It still creates controversy when we should be looking at how to work together,” Neuenfeldt said.
No recent polling has been done on the subject in Wisconsin.
The challenge in assessing the economic impact of right-to-work laws has been separating them from other factors that right-to-work states share, including lower taxes, fewer regulations and historically weak unions.
Proponents of the law often cite aggregate Census Bureau data showing right-to-work states outperforming non-right-to-work states in economic growth. But critics point out that right-to-work states have been concentrated in southern and western states, where other factors — from migration patterns to the expanded use of air conditioning — could explain the correlation.
To address that concern, University of Minnesota economist Thomas Holmes in 1998 looked at neighboring counties on the border of right-to-work and non-right-to-work states and found between 1947 and 1992, jobs grew 88.5 percent on the right-to-work side, and 62.6 percent on the non-right-to work side. But Holmes emphasized that right-to-work laws were part of a package of pro-business policies that could explain the difference.
More recent studies have attempted to isolate the impact in Oklahoma, the only state aside from Michigan and Indiana to become right-to-work since 1985.
One, by economists Ozkan Eren of Louisiana State University and Serkan Ozbekliky of Claremont McKenna College, found no significant change in jobs or wages after five years, though it did find a reduction in union participation. There was also evidence of an increase in foreign investment.
However the authors cautioned that for “states with high private sector union densities such as Wisconsin, where the debate over RTW laws is currently intense, the adoption of the laws may have different effects.”
Gordon Lafer, a political economist at the University of Oregon’s Labor Education and Research Center, and Sylvia Allegretto, a University of California-Berkeley economist, tried to parse out Oklahoma’s results 10 years after the law passed, but likewise found no evidence of related job growth, according to a study published by the liberal-leaning Economic Policy Institute.
“Since the law passed in 2001, manufacturing employment and relocations into the state reversed their climb and began to fall, precisely the opposite of what right-to-work advocates promised,” they wrote.
Another 2011 EPI study, by Heidi Shierholz, now the chief economist to the U.S. Secretary of Labor, and Elise Gould, an economist and UW-Madison doctoral graduate, concluded after trying to isolate the right-to-work law that comparable full-time workers in right-to-work states earned $1,500 less per year and had lower rates of employer-sponsored pensions and health insurance.
Stanley Greer, newsletter editor and spokesman for the National Right to Work Committee, has criticized the EPI studies, arguing they underestimate the higher cost of living in non-right-to-work states, which are concentrated on the west coast and in the northeast.
“We’re not purporting to prove that right-to-work produces superior economic performance,” Greer said.
The more important argument, he said, is that workers should have the freedom to choose whether to pay union dues or not.
The conservative Wisconsin Policy Research Institute has commissioned an economist to estimate the economic impact in Wisconsin, president Mike Nichols said.
“We’ll make all the methodology, findings — whatever they might be — and background on the author and his team available as soon as it’s done,” Nichols said in an email.