Economy, Regs, & Taxes

Right-to-Work Comes to Wisconsin

Workers get greater access to jobs, unions lose political muscle.

Robin Smith · Mar. 9, 2015

Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker on Monday signed right-to-work legislation, making “America’s Dairyland” the 25th state with laws preventing mandatory union membership and payment of dues. It’s both good for Wisconsin’s economy and is a feather in Walker’s presidential cap.

Through a section of the 1947 Taft-Hartley Act, states were permitted to enact legislation that allowed contracts to be signed between unions and businesses requiring workers at the particular company to pay labor fees, and legally binding those companies to fire workers who refused to join the union. Section 14B of this Act specifically noted that a right-to-work law would prevent such extortion.

Union members make up about 8% of Wisconsin’s current labor force. Just 30 years ago that number was 22%. Indeed, nationwide, labor unions are losing the muscle that once made them mighty – because their numbers have dwindled for the last three decades.

Walker’s tenure as Wisconsin governor has been marked by freeing the entire labor market from the chokehold of union membership. Upon his initial election in 2010, Walker went to work with the State Assembly to dismantle public-sector unions. The Wisconsin Act 10 eliminated collective bargaining for state workers, including teachers, addressed extravagant benefits and pension promises, and protected the state from a $3.6 billion budget deficit. That battle sent Walker to national prominence.

The 2011 Republican-led reform successfully implemented by Walker hit the same funding mechanism in public-sector unions as will now impact private-sector unions: forced dues payment.

Currently, detractors of right-to-work laws argue wage suppression will result without mandatory labor union representation. But that’s just not backed up by the facts.

For example, in 2012, Michigan became a right-to-work state under the leadership of Republican Governor Rick Snyder, also elected in 2010, and the Michigan Legislature. By 2013, its per-capita personal income rose to $39,215 from $38,291 in 2012. And by 2014, more than 8,000 teachers had made the decision not to pay union dues, while total union membership dropped almost two percentage points in the first full year of the law’s implementation.

It’s certainly interesting that as soon as people have the right to work without union interference union participation drops and incomes rise. It implies that, unless unions have some legal leverage enabling forced participation and extortion, they are undesirable and ineffective.

The reason is simple: Right-to-work laws give workers the opportunity to pursue employment without having to pay dues to unions, who frequently use that money to secure political power at the expense of worker protections. Right-to-work allows for greater access to jobs, while a government-mandated minimum wage prices some prospective workers out of those jobs. Which one makes more sense if creating jobs is the objective?

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