David Michael Miller
When Michigan workers rallied to oppose their state's so-called "right-to-work" legislation in 2012, laborers from Wisconsin joined them at the Capitol in Lansing to protest the anti-union bill.
It was a battle they lost fought and lost, when lawmakers passed the measure despite the massive public outcry, making Michigan the nation's 24th right-to-work state. Such laws prohibit businesses from reaching labor agreements with unions that require members to pay dues or fees.
Now, as Wisconsin appears poised to become the 25th state, a group of about 50 Michigan laborers returned the favor, driving to Madison in a gesture of solidarity.
"Stay strong" was the message Michigan Laborers' District Council Legislative Director Jonathan Byrd had for his Wisconsin counterparts as thousands gathered for the demonstration. Members of the group worked through the weekend to secure time off for the demonstration.
But with his words of encouragement came a warning: If right-to-work passes, he says, "workers will have less of a voice."
In Michigan, it's still too early to measure the economic impact of right-to-work. The law went into effect in March of 2013, but unions with contracts in place before the change won't be held to the new law until their agreements expire. Byrd says he expects to see wages decline in coming years.
In Wisconsin, the law would go into effect immediately with the governor's signature. Wisconsin Senate Republicans on Wednesday rejected an amendment to delay implementation for three months.
Economists testifying before the Wisconsin Senate Labor and Government Reform Committee this week cautioned against relying on averages -- which can be heavily skewed by outliers " to generalize about conditions right-to-work states.
And with two-thirds of right-to-work states adopting the law in the 1940s and 50s, the most relevant modern case study is Oklahoma, which passed the anti-union legislation in 2001, University of Oregon economics professor Gordon Lafer told the Wisconsin Senate Labor and Government Reform Committee on Tuesday.
He says the law had "no impact whatsoever" on retaining jobs, noting that more than 100 companies have left Oklahoma and moved abroad since right-to-work. Manufacturing took a hit as well, declining by a third in the following decade.
With states implementing the anti-union legislation at different times, for different reasons and under different economic structures, comparing conditions and performance is difficult.
"It's virtually impossible to make any claims" about the economic impact of right-to-work laws, says John Ahlquist, an associate professor of political science at UW-Madison who has studied labor market institutions.
It's widely accepted, however, that right-to-work laws have a negative impact on union membership.
In Michigan, a former union stronghold, membership has declined significantly since right-to-work. In 2013, about 16.3 percent of workers belonged to a union. In 2014, that figure fell to 14.5 percent.
An exception is Indiana. The 23rd state to adopt right-to-work in 2012, union membership seems to be recovering there after an initial decline. Membership grew from 10.3 percent of the state's workforce in 2013 to around 12 percent in 2014.
Union membership in Wisconsin is already low, having fallen from 16 percent 10 years ago to just below 12 percent in 2014. With right-to-work, that number will likely fall lower in coming generations -- which is good news for the GOP.
"We know that union members tend to vote at higher rates, tend to be more politically active and they tend to vote more Democratic than Republican," Ahlquist says. "This certainly is a political fight."