News Story

After Decades of Little Change, Why Are So Many States Going Right-to-Work?

Five years, five new worker freedom states

In the 47 years between 1964 and 2011, just three states adopted a right-to-work law – Louisiana (1976), Idaho (1985) and Oklahoma (2001).

But in the last five years, five more states have made it illegal for employers to make workers pay unions as a condition of employment: Indiana (2012), Michigan (2013), Wisconsin (2015), West Virginia (2016) and Kentucky (2017).

In the opening days of its 2017 legislative session, Missouri took a step toward becoming the 29th right-to-work state, when its Republican-controlled House approved a bill to adopt the policy.

Kentucky, Michigan, Wisconsin and Indiana all passed right-to-work laws when Republicans controlled the House, Senate and governor’s office. In West Virginia, a GOP legislature overrode a Democratic governor’s veto.

Economic and labor experts point to two factors that account for the growing popularity of a law that frees employees from having to financially support a labor union as a condition of employment. One is that labor unions are losing their political clout. The other is that Republican candidates have been winning more elections at the state level.

Currently, there are 25 Republican state “trifectas” where the GOP controls the House, Senate and governor’s office. By comparison, there are just five Democratic trifectas.

“This is just one of many manifestations of the broad movement to the right in American politics,” said Charles Ballard, a professor of economics at Michigan State University. “And, in the particular case of right-to-work laws, it’s a reflection of the declining clout of labor unions.”

University of Michigan economist Don Grimes points to a report that between the time former President Barack Obama took office in 2009 and the November 2016 election, Democrats have lost a total of 919 seats in state legislatures.

“When they (GOP) are in control of all three branches at the state level they can pass right-to-work legislation,” Grimes said in an email. He added that he thinks Missouri and New Hampshire will also adopt it.

“One question should be, if the Democrats take back power at the state level could they reverse those decisions? Of course, the Democrats appear to be a long way from winning back those states,” Grimes said. “The Republican brand has been gaining strength, which undoubtedly explains those legislative seat gains. All of the attention on (President Donald) Trump may be missing the more important political change, from Democrats to Republicans, including Trump.”

Antony Davies, an associate professor of economics at Duquesne University, said the decline of union power led to more states passing right-to-work legislation.

Davies said unions became victims of their own success.

“What is happening is that people are becoming more aware that the value unions provide is no longer worth the cost,” Davies said in an email. “In part, this is a testament to union successes. In decades past, when there was less competition among employers for workers, unions provided a power balance to labor negotiations. The result was improved compensation and working conditions.”

Today’s worker changes jobs more frequently because there is more competition for skilled and experienced labor, Davies said.

“As workers have less need for unions, unions can actually become impediments – charging dues, imposing rules, and generally interfering with worker-employer relations to the benefit of the union leadership but to the detriment of the union workers,” Davies said.

Michigan Capitol Confidential is the news source produced by the Mackinac Center for Public Policy. Michigan Capitol Confidential reports with a free-market news perspective.