When the Kentucky Legislature returned to work after winter recess, its first order of business was to mull legislation that is anathema to the state’s labor movement. Senate Bill 1 would make Kentucky a right-to-work state, where unions are forbidden to automatically charge representation fees to workers in unionized shops.
Twenty-four states have right-to-work laws on the books. Kentucky probably won’t become the 25th, since S.B. 1 is expected to die in the state house. But labor unions in other states might not be so lucky. In state legislatures around the country, newly strengthened Republican majorities are expected to push right-to-work legislation and other policy initiatives feared by the labor movement.
Wisconsin, long considered a union stronghold, will also consider right-to-work legislation this year. So might New Mexico, West Virginia and Missouri, among others.
Organized labor tends to fear right-to-work laws because of what it calls the free rider problem. The union in a unionized workplace is obliged to represent the entire bargaining unit. But under right-to-work laws, individual employees in that unit are under no obligation to pay dues in exchange for that representation.
And right-to-work is just the beginning. In the new legislative session in Pennsylvania the conservative American Future Fund is pushing pension reform and “paycheck protection,” which would bar unions from spending automatically deducted representation fees on political advocacy.
In Illinois, Republican Gov.-elect Bruce Rauner, has proposed establishing right-to-work zones in various regions of the state where businesses would be able to operate with fewer government regulations. The list goes on.
“We’re going to see a number of attacks on labor in a number of different ways,” said Peggy Shorey, state legislative affairs director for the labor federation AFL-CIO.
Those attacks have been coming for years. In 2012, Indiana and Michigan, traditionally a labor-friendly state, passed right-to-work legislation. But the next two years could be particularly brutal. That’s because the Republican wave that swept through Congress in November 2014 also brought numerous state legislatures under GOP control. The National Conference of State Legislatures estimates that 11 legislative chambers flipped from Democratic to Republican majorities as a result of the past elections.
Republicans now command bicameral majorities in 30 of the 50 state legislatures. In 23 states, the party holds both chambers of the legislature and the governorship. The same is true for Democrats in just seven states.
Unions are expecting state-level Republican majorities to use their newfound influence against the labor movement.
But Shorey said the news wasn’t all bad for organized labor. She expects numerous states to take up “some kind of legislation around raising wages or labor standards."
“I think the vast majority of states will have some kind of legislation, whether it’s the minimum wage, the tipped wage, equal pay or sick days,” she said. Minimum wage increases already took effect in 20 states at the beginning of 2015. Eleven of those states approved wage increases in the past year, including four red states.
Organized labor is also likely to receive more good news on the federal level, where Barack Obama’s administration has been making use of its regulatory authority to shore up union defenses. In the president’s second term, the Labor Department and the National Labor Relations Board have issued several precedent-setting decisions in favor of labor unions, including a major revision to the rules governing unionization elections.
“What we’ve seen coming up on the federal level has definitely been more of an activist agenda,” said Cara Sullivan, director of the commerce, insurance and economic development task force for the conservative American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC). Yet the most recent election results on the state level, she said, “open the door for more policies empowering individual employees and increasing the accountability of unions to their members and the taxpayers."
The council argues that reforms such as right-to-work are not anti-union per se, no matter how vigorously unions oppose them. “They’re policies that are aimed at allowing employees to choose whether they want to associate with the union,” said Sullivan.
ALEC hopes to encourage the passage of conservative legislation such as right-to-work bills not just on the state level but also through municipal and county governments as well. In 2014 the council launched American City County Exchange toward that goal. Its director, Jon Russell, said he was hopeful that right-to-work measures and similar proposals could make inroads in local government. In fact, they already have, in several Kentucky counties.
“I’m optimistic because I think it’s one of those areas where local governments in particular have felt neglected by the states,” said Russell, “especially in non-right-to-work states. With the composition of the state legislatures right now, I think that will become more of a reality and more of a shot in the arm, if you will."