Big news from the frozen tundra of Wisconsin: Legislators are calling a special session to advance a right-to-work measure. Following reforms permitting employees to refrain from funding unions in Indiana and Michigan, the state legislature has indicated that it will pass the measure and Governor Scott Walker has said he will sign it. Wisconsin would bring up the half-way mark for right-to-work laws, being the 25th state to ban so-called “agency shop” contracts requiring employees to fund labor unions in order to keep their jobs.
Union bosses reeling from the effects of employee-empowering reforms to public-sector workplaces in the state are naturally outraged, with some activists calling for a French-style “general strike.” But with the law likely to pass over their hollering, what lies in store for labor in the Badger State? While union bosses claim imminent doom, the facts show that right-to-work offers unions a choice: Continue the status quo and suffer membership declines, or adopt a new model of representative unionism and preserve influence.
Consider Nevada, which adopted a right-to-work law in the 1950s (and sustained it against multiple union-backed repeal efforts). Until Michigan passed right-to-work in 2012, Nevada was the most unionized right-to-work state, and the state remains highly unionized (according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, 14.4 percent of Nevada workers are union members, good for the 11th most-union state). In short, since the unions in Nevada have convinced employees that union representation helps them, they haven’t suffered the declines that unions in the Midwest have. (It also helps that union demands haven’t helped drive the casino industry into bankruptcy, as happened with some Midwest manufacturing.)
However, there are important employee rights that right-to-work laws don’t affect. Card-check will still be permitted, allowing unions to organize without a private vote. This matters because even though right-to-work allows nonmembers to refrain from funding the union, unions still have a privilege they demanded in federal labor law—exclusive representation, which requires all grievances and contract negotiation to go through the union. And if an employee wishes to get the union out, he or she would still need to follow the onerous and intimidation-laced decertification process, since an organized union has perpetual tenure.
If employee rights advocates want to continue the momentum from Indiana, Michigan, and now Wisconsin, they should call for the federal Employee Rights Act, which takes a wider view of employee rights and restricting union privilege than right-to-work alone. Among other reforms, it requires secret ballot votes to unionize, protects employees against coercion when decertifying a union, and grants employees the periodic right to a vote on whether to keep an established union. Each of its reforms is supported by more than 75 percent of Americans and guarantees new rights to employees to bring employment relations—which haven’t been significantly updated since the Taft-Hartley Act in 1947—into the 21st Century.