Is right-to-work the kiss of death for labor unions?

Photo by Light Brigading

A group in Wisconsin protests a “right-to-work” law in 2014. Photo by Light Brigading

Wisconsin labor unions took another hit today as Governor Scott Walker signed a bill known as the “right to work” into law Monday morning. In 2011, Governor Walker won a bitter fight to restrict collective bargaining for public sector workers. Now, after surviving a recall election and potentially looking towards a White House run, Mr. Walker has put restrictions on unions in the private sector.

“What right-to-work does is that at unionized plants the unions will come to an agreement with the employers so that if you want to work at that plant and don’t want to join the union you don’t have to, but you do still have to pay a fee to the union for representation,” John Ahlquist a political science professor at the University of Wisconsin, Madison, told the PBS NewsHour. “Typically this fee is about half of what union dues are for union members. Unions, by law, are to represent all the workers at a plant whether they voted to join it or not.”

The “right-to-work” bill, or “freedom-to-work” legislation, removes the fee that non-union members had to pay to unions representing their work place. Without the fees from non-union members, Ahlquist said unions will likely see a steep drop in membership — and forming a new union will become much harder.

Unions have fought the bill, saying the fees are fair considering the representation they provide all workers and the benefits workers receive from union-negotiated contracts. Walker, however, has repeatedly said that this law will provide workers with much needed freedom in the workplace.

“This freedom-to-work legislation will give workers the freedom to choose whether or not they want to join a union, and employers another compelling reason to consider expanding or moving their business to Wisconsin,” Walker said.

Wisconsin is the 25th state to pass a “right-to-work” bill. For decades, Southern and Western states passed similar legislation, but the industrial, union-strong Midwest did not. That changed just a few years ago when the Republican party won elections across the region. Indiana and Michigan have already passed similar laws and, despite large protests, West Virginia, a union stronghold, may pass their own version soon. Illinois, Missouri and Kentucky are also considering similar legislation.

Unions may have reason to be worried about these laws taking effect. Ahlquist said there are correlated consequences for unions in states that have passed “right-to-work”:

“In states that have right-to-work in place, they have lower wages overall. Not just in industries with unions, but in general they have lower wages,” said Ahlquist. “They have marginally more industrial accidents it appears. It is pretty well established and we’re prone to believe that right-to-work certainly inhibits the establishment of unions and questions the survival of existing unions over time.”

Union membership in Wisconsin has already taken a hit since Mr. Walker took office. In 2010, 14.2 percent of the employed were in unions, while in 2014 only 11.7 percent of the workforce were paying union dues. The decline, which has been happening for decades across the country, have to causes to blame, according to Steven Pitts at the University of California Berkeley Center for Labor, Research and Education.

“One, there is an economic shift away from union strongholds,” Pitts told PBS NewsHour. “At the height of union density there was a focus on manufacturing. Two, there is a sense on the part of the employers to resist these campaigns.”

Ahlquist agreed that the passing of “right-to-work” in Wisconsin demonstrates a much larger issue for unions.

“I view right-to-work as the symptom of labor unions today. You could not have passed this in Wisconsin 20 years ago. Passing it is more of an example of how weak unions have become, not as the thing that will kill them off,” said Ahlquist.

Though membership numbers are falling every year, labor unions still wield important power. In February, dockworkers belonging to the International Longshore and Warehouse Union shut down West Coast ports for days, stranding ships and costing millions of dollars. A deal was eventually brokered and the ports reopened.

“The dockworkers’ protest showed that they still have leverage in a key industry,” said Pitts. “Historically they have been a very strong union and a deeply engaged union. That remains true. They wanted to protect their benefits and knew a successful way to do that.”

Union members also still make a difference at the polls.

“Unions are still a very big part of the Democratic Party’s on-the-ground apparatus,” said Ahlquist. “Union members tend to be more politically informed and they vote at higher rates. They tend to vote democratic at national elections, that’s important.”

As “right-to-work” spreads through more than half the country, the law may continue to make it harder and harder for unions to maintain some power and influence.