When Badger Meter ordered $2.5 million in equipment last summer to start a new line of water-meter products, CEO Rich Meeusen had to pick its destination: Mexico or Milwaukee? “We were on the fence about where to go,” says Meeusen, who weighed Mexico’s cheap wages against Milwaukee’s better location and technical support. Over the last decade, his Wisconsin-based company had watched the number of jobs on its payroll swell by 40 percent. Yet Badger Meter had not added any in the Badger State.
That changed on March 9, when Governor Scott Walker signed a bill on the shop floor of Badger Meter’s Milwaukee factory, making Wisconsin the country’s 25th right-to-work state. “This legislation puts power back in the hands of Wisconsin workers, by allowing the freedom to choose whether they want to join a union and pay union dues,” said Walker. Meeusen announced that Badger Meter would hire a dozen workers in Milwaukee right away and as many as 50 in the years ahead. “We chose to expand here because of right-to-work,” he says.
After a long hibernation, the right-to-work movement has woken up like a bear in the spring. As far back as the 1940s, when the strength of Big Labor was near its peak, the belief that union membership should not be a condition of employment had enjoyed political success in the South and West. States such as Arizona, Arkansas, and Florida passed laws saying that workers may decline to join unions without losing their jobs. After 1985, when Idaho became the 20th state to approve a right-to-work law, the movement seemed to take a long break. Over the next quarter century, only two states — Texas in 1993 and Oklahoma in 2001 — crossed into its ranks.
In the last three years, however, three industrial states in the Midwest have passed right-to-work laws — an unexpected development in a region where unions had maintained the strongest of home-field advantages. In 2012, Indiana became a right-to-work state, followed soon after by Michigan and now Wisconsin. Since last December, a dozen counties in Kentucky have passed their own right-to-work laws, and even the new Republican governor of Illinois has started to talk about similar innovations. All of a sudden, right-to-work has become the hottest idea in conservative labor reform.
No wonder: Right-to-work states have outperformed the rest. Between 2003 and 2013, they gained jobs at more than twice the rate of states without right-to-work laws, according to data from the Bureau of Labor Statistics. Workers in these states also saw their incomes rise faster. These trends even shaped demography, affecting the flow of domestic migrants: In the 23 states that were right-to-work, the population grew by an average of 3 percent during this decade; it fell by an average of 1.1 percent in the 27 states that were not right-to-work.
One of the curiosities of right-to-work’s new phase is that it has risen from the ground up rather than descended from the top down. In other words, state and local officials have pushed for right-to-work, but governors haven’t. When Walker was a member of Wisconsin’s state assembly in 1993, for example, he proposed a right-to-work law, but then-governor Tommy Thompson, a Republican, wanted nothing to do with it. As governor himself, Walker became a conservative hero for beating back union power. Yet last December, when state legislators mentioned a desire to pass a right-to-work bill, Walker tried to brush them off. “I think it’s a distraction,” he told reporters. He was careful to say that he hadn’t changed his mind about right-to-work — he still favored it on the merits — but that he considered other issues more important.
The right-to-work movement always has had supporters in the mold of state-assembly-era Walker — lawmakers who offer bills even though they stand little chance of immediate success. One of them has been Jerry Torr, a Republican who was elected to Indiana’s house of representatives in 1996 and has served there ever since. In 2003, a right-to-work activist convinced Torr that workers shouldn’t be forced to pay union dues. “I hadn’t heard of this before,” says Torr. “So I did a little research.” He discovered studies by a pair of free-market think tanks, the Allegheny Institute in Pennsylvania and the Mackinac Center in Michigan. “Right-to-work states had incredible job-growth numbers,” he says. “I also noticed that not a single one of our border states had a right-to-work law at the time. I knew this would benefit Indiana.”
So, in 2004, Torr introduced his first right-to-work bill. He recognized that it wouldn’t pass: Democrats controlled his chamber of the legislature, and the governor was a Democrat, too. Yet he pursued the cause with the zeal of a missionary. “I introduced a bill every year,” he says. “I talked to my colleagues about it. I spoke to every group that would listen. I had a PowerPoint presentation that compared jobs and wages in states with right-to-work and without right-to-work, and I updated it every quarter.”
Torr needed to keep updating his data because Indiana’s next governor, Republican Mitch Daniels, refused to support right-to-work legislation. Daniels was no Big Labor lackey: In 2005, on his first day in office, he decertified Indiana’s government-employee unions, allowing most members to quit paying their dues. Yet Daniels also made clear that right-to-work would stay off his agenda. “I have said over and over, I’m a supporter of the labor laws we have in the state of Indiana,” he said at a Teamsters dinner in 2006. “I’m not interested in changing any of them. . . . Certainly not a right-to-work law.”
Daniels didn’t oppose right-to-work in principle, but he had other goals — and, like an auto executive who just wants to keep the assembly lines moving, he was more interested in making peace with unions than in confronting their privileges. One of the governor’s most controversial objectives was the privatization of Indiana’s toll road, a money-losing unit of state government. Daniels proposed leasing it to foreign investors in return for nearly $4 billion to fund infrastructure projects. As Democrats whipped up a populist reaction — he’s selling our roads to foreigners! — many union members recognized that Daniels was offering them a good deal. Truckers wanted better roads, and construction workers wanted more jobs. Daniels eventually got his way, and today a for-profit company runs the toll road and most people barely recall that there was once a fuss.
For the next several years, Daniels pushed a reform agenda on budgets and education that made him a favorite governor among conservative policy wonks. As he tried to attract businesses to Indiana, however, he kept hearing the same complaint: Employers didn’t want to move into a state that tilted the playing field in labor’s direction. Many of them liked everything about Indiana except its lack of a right-to-work law. So when Republican majorities in the legislature finally passed a right-to-work bill in 2012, Daniels signed it, making Indiana the first state in the Rust Belt to adopt the law. “Seven years of evidence and experience ultimately demonstrated that Indiana did need a right-to-work law to capture jobs for which, despite our highly rated business climate, we are not currently being considered,” said Daniels in a statement at the time.
Next came Michigan, where Republican governor Rick Snyder, like Daniels, initially shied away from right-to-work. Running for office in 2010, he had labeled it “too divisive.” Two years later, however, Michigan’s unions pushed a ballot initiative to enshrine collective bargaining in the state constitution. Voters, including about one-quarter of Democrats, rejected it. Labor looked weak. In the days that followed, Snyder repeated his claim that he had no interest in a right-to-work law. Yet he refused to say that he opposed one in principle. A few weeks later, GOP lawmakers put a bill on his desk. Snyder signed it, and Michigan — the home of storied labor leaders such as Walter Reuther and Jimmy Hoffa — became the 24th state to prohibit compulsory unionism.
When Walker signed Wisconsin’s right-to-work law in March, he generated a few dutiful complaints from union activists — but nothing like the theatrics of 2011, when he was a brand-new governor who wanted to limit the collective-bargaining rights of most of his state’s public employees. Back then, several state legislators wanted to include in Walker’s package of labor reforms a right-to-work measure covering private-sector employees as well, but the governor and his partners worried that a few key Republicans might defect. So they left it out. “We also hoped that the trade unions would sit on the sidelines,” says Scott L. Fitzgerald, majority leader of Wisconsin’s senate. That didn’t happen: Tens of thousands of protesters flocked to Madison, occupying the state capitol and camping out on its grounds. Democratic senators fled the state to deny a quorum to GOP lawmakers, delaying the vote on the reform. Despite the rancor, Walker and his allies prevailed. Their proposals became law, and the governor went on to survive a recall election the next year and win reelection last November.
Although Walker began his second term with even larger Republican majorities in the state legislature, he remained reluctant to take up right-to-work. “I just think there [are] a lot of things that are going to keep the legislature preoccupied for a while,” he said in a television interview on January 4. “So even though there [was] a lot of buzz a few weeks ago, I don’t know that that’s the first thing they’re going to start out with.”
Yet conservatives were eager to press forward. “What happened in Indiana and Michigan opened our eyes,” says Fitzgerald. “We knew that if we were going to remain competitive, we’d probably have to do it, too.” Fitzgerald and his allies pointed to economic data: In 2013, both Indiana and Michigan benefited from more growth than Wisconsin. The polls backed them as well — 62 percent of state residents supported right-to-work legislation, according to a survey by the Wisconsin Policy Research Institute. When a right-to-work bill finally cleared the legislature in February, Walker embraced it.
Several other states have flirted with right-to-work legislation this year. In New Mexico, where Republican governor Susana Martinez has endorsed right-to-work, the house of representatives approved a bill, but it died in the Democrat-controlled senate. A bill also passed Missouri’s house, but Democratic governor Jay Nixon has promised a veto. Ohio looks like a good candidate for right-to-work, if only because of the competition it now faces from neighboring Indiana and Michigan. Large GOP majorities dominate its legislature. Yet Republican governor John Kasich insists that he’s not interested. “It’s not on my agenda,” he said in February. “Right now in our state, we have labor peace.” Even so, right-to-work optimists observe that this is precisely how Daniels, Snyder, and Walker once spoke about the issue.
The next major advance for the right-to-work movement might take place not in a state capital but rather at the local level. This strategy is the brainchild of Brent Yessin, a lawyer who runs Protect My Check, a right-to-work advocacy group. He noticed that many cities and counties have strong charters that grant them a lot of independence on economic policy. Could they pass their own right-to-work rules? He discussed the approach last spring with Andrew Kloster and James Sherk of the Heritage Foundation, who examined the question and issued an analysis in August: “Cities and counties have a good legal argument that they are free to pass” right-to-work ordinances, they concluded.
“After that, it was just a matter of deciding where to launch a beta test,” says Yessin. He picked his home state of Kentucky, where Democrats control half of the legislature as well as the governorship. Yessin knew that Kentucky’s business leaders were feeling a sense of urgency. Along the I-69 corridor, which runs from Mexico to Canada, Kentucky now is the only state without a right-to-work law. “Businesses that rely on I-69 don’t want to start a business or relocate here,” says Lee Lingo, president of the Madisonville–Hopkins County Chamber of Commerce. “They just go south to Tennessee or Texas or north to Indiana or Michigan.”
Since December, a dozen counties in Kentucky have approved their own right-to-work rules, from big Boone County just outside Cincinnati to tiny Fulton County on the banks of the Mississippi River. Unions have sued to stop them, but the movement could expand to nearby states soon. Bruce Rauner, the new Republican governor of Illinois, already has issued an executive order that bans government unions from coercing workers to pay union dues. Now he’s talking about right-to-work at the local level. “We’re the economic muscle of the Midwest, and we’re sitting here with closed-shop restrictions,” he told the Wall Street Journal. “If DuPage County wants to have closed shop in their county, keep it — terrific, no problem. But why should DuPage force Effingham County to be closed shop? If Effingham wants to compete with Indiana for a new business, and be on the list where companies will look for employment flexibility, why shouldn’t they be able to choose to do that?”
From its earliest days, the right-to-work movement has relied on its simple appeal to the power of choice. If it continues to prevail, other states and localities will feel pressure to let workers make their own decisions about unionizing. At least they’ll always have the ability to say no — a courtesy they currently refuse to extend to their own citizens.