OPINION: The Tide Is Turning Toward Right-to-Work Laws

(The Heritage Foundation/TNS) -

Eighteen-year-old Saira Blair recently made history as the youngest person elected to the West Virginia legislature. She may make history again as a lawmaker by securing passage of a right-to-work law.

Currently, 24 states have such laws making union dues voluntary. After the conservative sweep in November, a majority of states may be poised to put them on the books — and local governments in the remaining states could follow suit.

In West Virginia, Republicans took control of both houses of the legislature for the first time in more than 80 years. They have long made right-to-work a priority, and they now have the votes to override a veto. Delegate Blair’s bill may well become law.

In New Mexico, lawmakers — Democrat and Republican — are also considering right-to-work. The Republican State Senate minority leader says they have the votes to pass it, and the state house may, too. Gov. Susanna Martinez would certainly sign such a law. Wisconsin lawmakers also plan to introduce right-to-work legislation — legislation Gov. Scott Walker would undoubtedly sign.

These states have good reason to pass right-to-work laws. They expand personal freedom. Without them, union contracts force workers to pay dues or get fired. This compels workers to pay hundreds of dollars annually to organizations whose agendas they often oppose, such as when unions spend their dues supporting special-interest organizations.

Mandatory dues also drive businesses away. Union organizers become much more persistent in states without right-to-work. In those states, a successful organizing drive means a perpetual stream of forced dues from every employee. Most companies, however, would prefer not to get unionized. The prospect of aggressive organizing causes them to take their businesses elsewhere.

As economic-development consultant David Brandon explains, “More than half of our companies either make it a threshold or a very important factor in making a decision on where to locate a factory and other operations.” The foreign transplant automakers did not accidentally locate almost entirely in right-to-work states.

Small wonder Gallup polling finds Americans support right-to-work by a 3-to-1 margin. Large majorities of Republicans, Democrats and independents all favor voluntary union dues.

Union bosses do not. Until recently, their clout has discouraged most politicians from touching right-to-work. Between 1980 and 2011, only two states passed such laws. Then, in 2012, both Michigan and Indiana did. Union presidents promised the lawmakers who passed it were “going to be sorry” come election day.

They weren’t. Conservative legislative majorities increased in both states in the subsequent elections. Unions did not defeat a single Michigan lawmaker who voted for right-to-work.

This has emboldened more states to embrace it. If West Virginia and New Mexico pass right-to-work laws, a majority of states will have them for the first time since President Franklin Roosevelt signed the National Labor Relations Act (NLRA).

Unfortunately, union opposition still stymies right-to-work in many states. Unions have the votes to block it in the Kentucky House of Representatives. Ohio Gov. John Kasich does not want to deal with the political fight it would entail. Even Wisconsin’s Gov. Walker has expressed uncharacteristic reticence on the issue, at least for the time being.

Fortunately, workers do not have to wait for their legislatures to act. As a recent Heritage Foundation study notes, local governments in many states can also pass right-to-work. The Supreme Court has never ruled directly on whether the NLRA allows local right-to-work. But the court’s precedent on related legal issues strongly suggests it does. The court would probably uphold local right-to-work ordinances.

Furthermore, many states give their counties the authority to pass such laws. For example, Wisconsin law expressly allows cities and villages to pass laws for the “commercial benefit” of their residents. Kentucky law empowers counties to pass ordinances for the “promotion of economic development.”

Right-to-work laws fall under these categories. Indeed, few policies could do more to encourage economic development. Beretta built its new plant in Tennessee instead of Kentucky in part because the Bluegrass state lacks right-to-work. As an economic-development official told the Kentucky legislature, a third to half of all major manufacturing projects “do not consider Kentucky because of our lack of a right-to-work status.”

Workers want to choose how they spend their own money. The unemployed need more jobs. Right-to-work brings both. Several states now appear poised to embrace it. If their legislatures do not, Wisconsinites, Kentuckians and residents of other states can turn to their local governments for relief. 2015 may prove a historic year for right-to-work.

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James Sherk is a senior policy analyst in labor economics at The Heritage Foundation.