- - Friday, February 27, 2015

In late 2012, Michigan became the 24th right-to-work state, freeing the state’s employees of the obligation to pay union dues or fees as a condition of employment. The historical significance of Michigan’s decision is difficult to understate: Michigan is home to America’s manufacturing hub for automobiles and birthplace of the United Auto Workers (UAW).

Just over two years later, Wisconsin—another Midwestern state with deep labor roots—is poised to follow suit.

Passing right-to-work has been a catalyst for Michigan’s economy, which may be why Wisconsin is so eager to pass its own law. Since right-to-work work took effect in March 2013, 142,000 more people are employed in Michigan and private-sector weekly earnings have increased 5.4 percent, outpacing the national average of 3.7 percent.

Among its neighboring states in the Midwest, only Indiana—itself a recent right-to-work state—outpaced Michigan in job growth over the period.

A major reason for the quickly growing economy is that more companies are looking at Michigan as a destination for expanding their business. Shortly after right-to-work passed, a Chicago-based real estate developer explained the rationale to Site Selection Magazine: “[W]hen there are companies who are looking for locations, Michigan will no longer be eliminated because they are not a right-to-work state.”

This is a benefit that Wisconsin could sorely use. Despite the workplace freedom benefits of Governor Scott Walker’s public-sector union reform, the state is still hindered by a burdensome tax environment that’s slowed its economic recovery relative to some of its neighbors. A right-to-work policy would deliver to Wisconsin the same economic benefits it has provided in Michigan and elsewhere.

Here’s the surprising part: Right-to-work policies aren’t just good for employees and employers—they’re good for unions, too. In a right-to-work state, everyone has the option to join a union and pay monthly dues. Instead of organizing a workplace and then clocking out as the dues checks roll in, the union has to convince current and potential members that it provides a valuable service at a reasonable price.

In Indiana, that is exactly what happened. Union membership in the state grew by 50,000 members in 2014, two years after it passed right-to-work. Gary Casteel, the Southern region director for UAW, was previously quoted saying he prefers right-to-work environments for organizing: “This is something I’ve never understood, that people think right to work hurts unions…To me, it helps them.”

It’s a remarkably reasonable perspective on a law that national labor unions have had a difficult time messaging against. They tried again in Madison recently, with back-to-back rallies of a couple thousand people designed to embellish the law’s impact and strike fear into on-the-fence legislators. But the political consequences of right-to-work have, if anything, been positive for its supporters.

Michigan’s Governor Rick Snyder, who signed right-to-work in 2012, easily won reelection in 2014. In 2012, Indiana elected Republican Governor Mike Pence to succeed the term-limited Mitch Daniels who signed right-to-work earlier that year. (That same year, Indiana Republicans gained nine seats in the House and did not lose any seats in the Senate.) Most notably, in 2014 not a single Michigan legislator who voted for right-to-work lost in the general election—despite union threats that “there will be blood” if the law is passed.

Taxpayers in these states understood the importance of right-to-work policies and looked past the hyped-up rhetoric from opponents—just like the Wisconsinites who were wise enough to see through labor’s desperate predictions that the sky would fall during the debate over Act 10 and government union reform.

Despite the scare tactics used—ones we are already seeing again—Wisconsinites even sent Governor Walker back for a second term. This was after he became the first governor in history to survive a recall election in 2012.

So we’re optimistic that the recent protests and rhetoric notwithstanding, the state’s legislators and residents understand a right-to-work law does no more than give employees a choice in the workplace. It is as simple as that. Workers deserve the freedom to choose whether or not they belong to a union.

And that’s who really matters in this debate—the workers. And the most important discussion point now is not whether Wisconsin will pass the law; it’s which state comes next.

Brett Healy is President of the John K. MacIver Institute for Public Policy in Madison, Wisconsin.  F. Vincent Vernuccio is Director of Labor Policy for Mackinac Center for Public Policy in Midland, Michigan.

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