WASHINGTON -- This week, Republican state legislators in Wisconsin plan to take up right-to-work legislation in a special session. If the measure passes and is signed by Gov. Scott Walker (R), Wisconsin would become the 25th state in the country with a right-to-work law on its books.
So what is right-to-work?
Under U.S. labor law, a union that wins an election in a workplace must represent all the workers in the bargaining unit, even the ones who may have voted against the union. Since that representation costs money, unions prefer to ink contracts that require all the workers in the unit to support the union financially. Right-to-work laws make such arrangements illegal.
Under right to work, no employee can be required to pay fees to the union. Once provided with an out, many workers naturally choose to stop supporting it. Some may have never liked the union or its politics. But others may opt out simply due to economic self-interest: It makes little sense to pay the union for a service that it's obligated to provide you anyway.
Conservatives like to say right-to-work legislation promotes individual freedom. Unions like to say it advances individual free-riding, since workers can enjoy the benefits of the union's bargaining without helping to underwrite it.
(Contrary to popular opinion, no worker in the U.S. can be forced to be a full dues-paying, card-carrying member of a union. But they can be compelled to pay so-called "agency fees" -- the portion of dues that goes expressly to bargaining and representation costs, as opposed to, say, political campaigns. Right-to-work guarantees that workers do not have to pay these fees.)
On the right, proponents of right-to-work argue that the laws make states more competitive and attract business. On the left, opponents of right-to-work argue that the laws drive down wages and fail to create jobs. What few would deny is that right-to-work laws can be crippling for organized labor.
As workers bow out of unions, the remaining workers must bear a larger share of the costs associated with representation and organizing. And if the union becomes less effective, workers have even more reason to leave, creating a downward spiral.
Republicans in Michigan passed a right-to-work law there in 2012, despite the state's storied labor history and the presence of the United Auto Workers union. Data from the Bureau of Labor Statistics has already revealed a drop in union density in Michigan. Last year, the estimated number of union members dropped by 48,000, despite the fact that the state added 44,000 more workers to its economy.
Whatever their feelings on labor unions' role in the workplace, many Republicans have a political interest in passing right-to-work legislation. By weakening organized labor, the laws indirectly hurt the Democratic Party, as unions remain a critical piece of the party's base. It's worth noting that the very phrase "right to work," with its positive connotations, constitutes a linguistic coup for the right. (Unions have sought, with much less success, to brand the legislation as "right to work for less.")
Like other legislative attacks on collective bargaining, the proliferation of right-to-work laws plays a large role in organized labor's ongoing existential crisis. Right now, not even 7 percent of private-sector workers belong to a labor union, down from a peak of about 30 percent in the post-World War II years. More right-to-work laws will likely diminish that density further.
Wisconsin would carry some particular symbolism as the 25th state to become right-to-work. If half the states in the country had adopted such laws, right-to-work status would be more the norm than an aberration. Long common in the South and West, such laws have recently made inroads in the comparably union-dense Midwest, not just in Michigan but also Indiana. And as more states become right-to-work, conservatives in other states will undoubtedly argue that they also need to be right-to-work to remain competitive.
If the 2011 labor demonstrations in Madison were any indication, the Wisconsin capital could potentially burst into large-scale protests against the legislation this week. Regardless, Walker has acknowledged that he will sign a right-to-work bill if it reaches his desk. As contentious as such laws may be, they now appear possible -- if not always likely -- in just about any state where Republicans control the legislature and the governor's mansion.
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