RUSTHOVEN: Right-to-work could spark Urbana 2.0

December 10, 2011

RusthovenLast year, Democratic state representatives decamped to Illinois, halting legislative proceedings. One purpose was blocking school vouchers, loathed by the Indiana State Teachers Association. The other was derailing right-to-work, despised by all unions.

Vouchers went forward. Right-to-work did not. It’s now coming back—and House Democrats are rechecking Urbana motel rates.

What’s at stake? Here’s a right-to-work primer: Federal labor law permits states to prohibit bargaining agreements requiring workers to join a union (or to pay union dues). Unions hate this provision but have never been able to kill it.

Statutes adopting such prohibitions are “right-to-work” laws, now found in 22 states—many in the South and Southwest, none in the Northeast. Indiana passed right-to-work in 1957, but a court held it barred only “closed-shop” (compulsory union membership), not “agency shop” contracts (compulsory union dues). This emasculated law was repealed in 1965.

Right-to-work laws deprive unions of crucial power—the ability to compel workers to pay union dues as a condition of employment. The larger economic impact is pretty straightforward.

Right-to-work states generally have lower unemployment and higher economic growth rates. Unions say average wages are less. But this has not deterred people from “voting with their feet” to move to right-to-work areas. In 1978, 28 percent of Americans lived in right-to-work states; the 2008 figure is 40 percent.

Right-to-work states are magnets for jobs and residents. Indiana could be a right-to-work oasis in a desert of Rust Belt neighbors already trailing us. Another obstacle to employers choosing Indiana would disappear. Standing in the way are Democratic legislators—reliant on union votes and dollars—who cannot defeat right-to-work on a roll call, but can stop the roll call itself by heading back over the border.

These are tough times for unions, which now need government to survive. The unionized portion of the national work force fell to 11.9 percent in 2010, down from 20.1 percent in 1983.

Indiana figures show sharper declines. In 2009, the unionized portion of the work force was 10.7 percent. In 1985, it was 21.6 percent. In 1965, it was 41 percent (when the comparable national figure was 29 percent). Anyone see a trend?

Comparing public- and private-sector unionization reveals another trend. In 1983, two-thirds of union members were private-sector employees. By 2009, a majority were employed by federal, state and local governments, with employees in the last category accounting for 42 percent of the total.

The “percentages of work force” comparison is more startling. Last year, only 6.9 percent of private-sector workers were unionized. The public-sector percentage was 36.2.

Little wonder that unions and Democrats are locked in co-dependent embrace. Unions—funded, absent right-to-work laws, by compulsory dues—overwhelmingly support Democrats. Business PAC contributions split roughly 50-50 between the major parties. The union figures are 93 percent to Democrats, 7 percent to Republicans.

In 2010, the largest “outside” campaign spender (i.e. other than candidates and parties) was the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees, at $81.5 million. Such figures exclude union communications to members (deemed “non-political” expenditures) or union Election Day foot soldiers.

This generosity is not unrewarded. Officials elected with union support negotiate with public-sector unions to set pay and benefits. Billions in federal “stimulus” dollars are funneled to state governments to forestall public employee layoffs. And right-to-work proposals are strenuously opposed—with Hoosier Democratic representatives even willing to go on strike.

Get ready for more TV footage of union members chanting at the Statehouse, and Democratic legislators lounging in Urbana motels. Great theater. Can you guess who’s paying for the show?•


Rusthoven, an Indianapolis attorney and graduate of Harvard College and Harvard Law School, was associate counsel to President Reagan.


Recent Articles by Peter J. Rusthoven / Special to IBJ

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