‘It’s So Old-Fashioned, It’s A Brand New Idea’   


(National Institute for Labor Relations Research Fact Sheet)

Recent State Election Returns Indicate Support For Right to Work Is an Increasingly Valuable Political Asset

By Stan Greer

Right To Work - It's So Old, It's New Again_Page_01On June 5, 2012, Badger State Republican Scott Walker became the first governor in U.S. history to survive a “recall” election.  He defeated his union-label Democratic challenger, Milwaukee Mayor Tom Barrett, 53% to 46%.  That same day, Wisconsin’s GOP lieutenant governor, Rebecca Kleefisch, beat Democrat Mahlon Mitchell, the head of the Wisconsin affiliate of the International Association of Firefighters union (IAFF/AFL-CIO), by a slightly narrower margin.

As Mr. Walker himself correctly observed in a post-election interview on June 14, 2012, the outcome of the “recall” vote sent a clear message to elected officials in other states who might be contemplating, for budgetary and other public-policy reasons, rollbacks of monopolistic government unionism similar to the one he and his allies had achieved the year before:

We open the door . . . for both state and local government leaders to say . . . maybe we can consider making . . . changes and realize if we do, the groups that everybody thought were going to take you out didn’t do it.[1]

As the GOP gubernatorial nominee in 2010, Mr. Walker had vowed to help steer Wisconsin onto a new path, along which private-sector wages, salaries and benefits would grow more rapidly while the size of government payrolls was kept in check.  Voters responded positively, electing Mr. Walker to a four-year term by a 52% to 46% margin over Mr. Barrett.

Soon after he became governor, Mr. Walker heeded Right to Work advocates and made repeal of Wisconsin’s 1971 labor-law amendment authorizing the extraction of forced union dues from public servants as a job condition a major part of his budget-reform package (S.B.11, otherwise known as Act 10).  Other key provisions in the package permanently stripped most government union bosses of the monopoly power to negotiate benefits and work rules for employees who don’t want a union and choose not to join as well as for union members.  Still other portions of Act 10 authorized public agencies to divert a significantly higher share of employees’ wages and salaries into their health-care and pension plans, and thus reduced taxpayers’ total compensation liabilities.

In Esquire Magazine Interview, AFL-CIO Czar Richard Trumka Likened Scott Walker to ‘Lucifer’

The introduction of Act 10 in the Wisconsin Legislature in early 2011 infuriated the union hierarchy.  While private-sector Big Labor bosses in state after state enacting Right to Work laws since the mid-20th Century had had to adjust to the loss of their power to get employees fired for refusal to join a union or pay forced “agency” fees, until just a few years ago extraordinarily few government union bosses had had to cope with being deprived of their forced-dues privileges.

The reason why is that, as of early 2011, public-sector forced unionism had not been legally authorized or commonly practiced in any of the 22 states that then had Right to Work laws on the books at the time the Right to Work law was first enacted.

But on March 11, 2011, government union chiefs in Wisconsin became the first in U.S. history to see a measure removing their statutory forced-fee control over employees be signed into law.  (Unfortunately, the forced-fee repeal in Act 10 exempted public-safety and all private-sector union officials.)  Big Labor’s response was a spasm of rage.

As Act 10 was making its way through the Legislature, teacher union bosses in Madison, Milwaukee, and other cities called teachers out on illegal strikes so they could stage angry protests at the state capitol and at legislators’ residences.  Government union militants issued dozens of death threats against Mr. Walker, members of his administration, and their families.  Fourteen Big Labor-backed state senators, all Democrats, temporarily fled the state to deny the pro-Act 10 Senate majority a quorum to pass the bill.

And union bigwigs’ wrath did not dampen with the law’s final enactment.  In 2011 and 2012, Big Labor and its allied special-interest groups dumped nearly $36 million in publicly reported expenditures alone into special “recall” elections union strategists had engineered against Mr. Walker, Ms. Kleefisch, and nine of their legislative allies in the state Senate, plus into three “recall” races in which pro-forced unionism senators were being challenged.[2]  Hidden, “in-kind” expenditures of forced-dues treasury money by union officials in Wisconsin’s 2011-2012 “recalls” were almost certainly even greater than their reported spending.  The national union political machine also poured vast sums of mostly forced-dues money into the regularly scheduled 2011-2012 mid-term and 2013-2014 gubernatorial election cycles in Wisconsin.

In late 2011, national AFL-CIO czar Richard Trumka made it clear just how eager he and his lieutenants were to punish Mr. Walker and other Act 10 supporters and recover all their forced-dues and monopoly-bargaining privileges in Wisconsin when he likened the governor to “Lucifer” in an interview published in Esquire magazine.[3]

National Government Union Czar Vowed to ‘Kick’ Wisconsin Governor’s  ‘A** in’ on Election Day, 2014

But the net result of Big Labor’s amply-funded electoral efforts to punish Act 10 supporters and reinstate government union bosses’ power to get teachers and many other types of public employees fired for refusal to join or bankroll an unwanted union has been . . . two more victories at the ballot box for the Walker-Kleefisch ticket and significantly increased support for Right to Work in both chambers of the Wisconsin Legislature.

In November 2012, even as Wisconsinites voted to reelect President Obama by a decisive 6.9 percentage-point margin, they again rebuked the union bosses at the state level.  The Republican legislative leaders who were responsible for Act 10 were handed an 18-15 majority in the state Senate and retained a large GOP majority in the state Assembly.

And in November 2014, just a few weeks after American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees (AFSCME) union President Lee Saunders predicted Big Labor’s political operatives would “kick” Mr. Walker’s “a** in” on Election Day,[4]   the latter won a second four-year term, prevailing over his union boss-backed opponent, Democrat Mary Burke, by nearly six percentage points.

According to the AP’s estimate, a higher share of Wisconsinites voted last fall than in any of the state’s other mid-term elections going back at least to 1950.[5]  In this year’s legislative session, Assembly Speaker Robin Vos (R-Rochester), a proponent of a state Right to Work law as well as of Act 10, will preside over a 63-36 majority, “the biggest GOP margin in that house since the 1957 session.”[6]    Senate Majority Leader Scott Fitzgerald (R-Juneau), another Act 10 champion, is expected to see his GOP caucus margin expand to 19-14 after an April special election.

Since the vast majority of Republican members of the 2015-2016 Wisconsin Assembly and Senate have publicly pledged to support Right to Work legislation expanding the state’s ban on forced dues and fees to private-sector employees and to public employees who are left unprotected by Act 10, freedom-loving Wisconsinites are hopeful that in the near future all types of employees in the state will be shielded from compulsory unionism.

‘There Is a Lot of Outmigration in Indiana Right Now. . . . [Right to Work] Is a Make-or-Break Deal . . .’

Less than 11 months after Wisconsin stunned Big Labor by discrediting union bosses’ “Brezhnev Doctrine” of public-sector forced union dues (i.e., once a state passes a statute empowering government union chiefs to get civil servants fired for refusing to bankroll a union, civil servants’ freedom is never restored), Indiana dealt the union hierarchy an even greater shock.

On January 25, 2012, Indiana’s House of Representatives voted in favor of H.B.1001, a measure prohibiting union officials from taking money from employees’ paychecks as a condition of getting or keeping a job.  Standing up to taunts and threats emanating from hundreds of union bosses and other Big Labor militants who had been crowding the halls of the capitol for hours, a 54-44 House majority voted to adopt H.B.1001 and send it to the state Senate.

A week later, the Senate, which had already passed another version of the Right to Work legislation, 28-22, approved H.B.1001 and sent it to then-Gov. Mitch Daniels’s (R) desk.  Within a few hours, Mr. Daniels signed the measure into law.

Indiana thus became the 23rd Right to Work state, and, for the time being, the only Great Lakes state with a private-sector Right to Work law.  Indiana also was the first new Right to Work state in more than five decades not to share a border with at least one other state that already had such a law.

Like Wisconsin’s Act 10, Indiana’s Right to Work law came into being as a consequence of a combination of factors.  For decades, scientific surveys in these two Midwestern states and across the country have shown overwhelming popular support for the principle that unionism should be voluntary.  Favorable public opinion was a necessary, but far from sufficient, condition for labor policy reform in the Badger and Hoosier States.

A second factor prompting Indiana legislators to act decisively and curtail Big Labor special privileges was a widening consensus among employees, businesses, and other citizens that forced unionism was holding the state’s economy back.

Dan Henninger, the deputy editorial page editor of the Wall Street Journal and a transplanted Midwesterner himself, summed up what he had been hearing from policymakers and other concerned citizens in the state during a January 14, 2012 broadcast of his newspaper’s “Journal Editorial Report” on Fox News:

I think this is really almost a life-and-death issue for Indiana.   Twenty percent of Indiana’s workforce is in manufacturing.  That’s the highest percentage in the United States.   They make elevators, refrigerators, mobile homes, engines — Cummins Engine is there. . . .They have got to be competitive with the southern tier of Right to Work states we saw on the map, or those companies will inevitably migrate.  There’s a lot of outmigration in Indiana right now. The level of real incomes is falling because of all the manufacturing going to the [Right to Work] South.  It is a make-or-break deal for Indiana . . . .

Widespread moral opposition to and grave public concerns regarding the economic impact of compulsory unionism would not, in themselves, have paved the way for passage of Indiana’s Right to Work law.  A sustained lobbying effort by thousands and thousands of Hoosiers was also required to overcome both the clout of the union political machine and the power of the status quo.

Grass-Roots Group Mobilized an Ever-Loudening Drum Beat of Support For Employee Freedom

In 2003, Indiana citizens who were determined to free themselves and their fellow Hoosiers from the shackles of compulsory unionism launched what they knew would be a long, and often difficult, effort to pass a Right to Work law.  Subsequently, the organization they put into high-gear, the Indiana Right to Work Committee, mobilized an ever-loudening drum beat of support for employee freedom and built up opposition to force unionism in the state Legislature.

For several years, Right to Work activists faced stiff resistance.  In February 2006, for example, 18 Big Labor-appeasing Republican representatives joined with 47 union-label Democrats to crush a Right to Work amendment, 65-31.   Freedom-loving Hoosiers were unbowed.

With the emergence of the Indiana Right to Work Committee as a major citizens lobby, many politicians who had once ridden the fence decided to take a stand in favor of Right to Work.  Other politicians who stubbornly continued to carry water for Big Labor went down to defeat.

Finally, in late 2011, Gov. Daniels and GOP House Speaker Brian Bosma (Indianapolis), who had up to then opposed consideration of Right to Work measures in the General Assembly, heeded the persistent pleas of grass-roots activists and changed their position.  After that, the Right to Work victory came swiftly.

But even before H.B.1001 had reached Mr. Daniels’s desk so that he could sign it, union bosses were vowing to punish the elected officials who had voted for the statute.

In a January 31, 2012 interview with the Munster-based Northwest Indiana Times, AFL-CIO President Trumka bluntly threatened Hoosier legislators who had voted for Right to Work and other legislative and executive candidates who had been publicly supportive of the measure.

Mr. Trumka warned elected officials and other candidates who had stood up to the union hierarchy that they “should expect heavy campaigning against them in the upcoming elections,” according to Times reporter Bowdeya Tweh.  The burly union boss continued:  “They will pay a price at the polls.”[7]

But in Indiana, just like in Wisconsin, Mr. Trumka and the rest of union officialdom couldn’t get around the obstacle of the public’s overwhelming support for Right to Work, and the electorate’s utter lack of interest in punishing politicians for curtailing Big Labor’s monopoly privileges.

Indiana Election Results Clearly Caught the Attention of Michigan Legislators

In the 2012 Indiana governor’s race, GOP nominee Mike Pence, who publicly supported the Hoosier State’s new Right to Work law and promised to fight any and all efforts by union bosses to wipe it off the books, defeated union-label Democrat John Gregg by nearly 75,000 votes.  The GOP retained its 37-13 majority in the state Senate, and expanded its majority by a full nine seats, to 69-31, in the House.[8]

The results in these state executive and legislative races, in which Right to Work was a key issue, were in stark contrast to the results of Indiana’s 2012 U.S. Senate race, in which other issues were far more prominent.  In the federal campaign, Democrat Joe Donnelly defeated GOP nominee Richard Mourdock, 50.0% to 44.3%.

Last fall, Gov. Pence was not on the ballot, but the Indiana Senate and House leaders who had worked to ban forced union dues and fees saw the pro-Right to Work legislative majorities expand.  With Republicans now dominating the Senate, 40-10, and the House, 71-29, union-label Democratic politicians are “marginalized,” as Indiana newspaper headlines for a post-election AP story put it.[9]

The GOP’s 2012 sweep of Indiana’s state House contests, which occurred even as the Obama-Biden ticket was sailing to a 332-206 electoral vote victory in its bid for a second term at the White House, did not go unnoticed in neighboring Michigan.

Rick Snyder, the Wolverine State’s Republican governor, had publicly stated during his successful 2010 campaign to become Michigan’s chief executive that he would “sign a right-to-work bill if it came to his desk . . . .”[10]  He did this because he knew Michiganders oppose forced unionism.

Like many politicians, Mr. Snyder hedged his position, attempting to appease Big Labor.  He indicated he wouldn’t push for passage of a Right to Work law.  But he never said he opposed such laws in principle.

Big Labor knew full well Mr. Snyder supported Right to Work, albeit timidly.  That’s why Bob King, the president at that time of the United Autoworkers (UAW/AFL-CIO) union, decided shortly after Indiana approved the 23rd state Right to Work law in February 2012 to mount a preemptive strike against Right to Work in Michigan.

Joined by a host of other union officials, the UAW brass concocted a November 2012 ballot initiative known as Proposal 2.  Had it been approved, Proposal 2 would have made it constitutionally impossible for Michigan’s elected officials to adopt a Right to Work law or restrict substantially Big Labor’s monopoly privileges in any other way.

Unfortunately for Bob King and his cohorts, the people of Michigan refused to go along.  And Proposal 2’s defeat by 57.4% of Michigan voters actually emboldened many elected officials who had been sitting on the fence to support Right to Work.

Teamster Kingpin Insisted That Michigan Right to Work Law’s Adoption Was ‘Just the First Round’

The lopsided vote against Proposal 2 was cast by the same state electorate that favored giving President Obama a second term by a nine percentage-point margin. Both Proposal 2’s defeat and the utter failure of Richard Trumka and other union kingpins to make good on their threats to punish Indiana politicians who had supported Right to Work were, without a doubt, major factors in Michigan’s adoption of the 24th state Right to Work law in December 2012.

Michigan legislators whose constituents had long pressed them to support a state Right to Work law, but had held back due to fear of Big Labor retaliation at the polls, could see for themselves that voters had actually rewarded Indiana politicians for standing up to Big Labor bosses.

But after Gov. Snyder signed private- and public-sector Right to Work measures into law on December 11, 2012, it was reasonable to wonder what the repercussions would be in Michigan, a longtime bastion of compulsory unionism and the seventh most unionized state in the country that year.[11]

At that time, union-label politicians and union bosses didn’t hesitate to predict that Mr. Snyder and other pro-Right to Work elected officials would soon come to regret what they had done.

On the floor of the Michigan House the day it gave final approval to Right to Work legislation, union-label state Rep. Douglas Geiss (D-Taylor) raged:  “We’re going to pass something that will undo 100 years of labor relations, and there will be blood.  There will be repercussions!”[12]

That evening, International Brotherhood of Teamsters don Jim Hoffa seethed on CNN that the signing of Right to Work legislation by Michigan’s governor would be “just the first round of a battle that’s going to divide this state.  We’re going to have a civil war.”[13]

But if the 2014 state elections in Michigan really amounted to a “war” over Right to Work, it was surely a lopsided one.  Wolverine State voters gave what can only be regarded as a ringing endorsement to their two-year-old ban on forced union dues and fees.

In 2014 Michigan State Elections, Organized Labor ‘Was Routed on the Right-to-Work Issue’

Mr. Snyder was reelected over his pro-compulsory unionism Democrat challenger, Mark Schauer.  The number of pledged Right to Work supporters increased by eight in the House, and by three in the Senate.  Despite investing heavily in the state, the union political machine did not defeat a single legislator who had voted for Right to Work!

Larry Gabriel, a columnist for Detroit’s Metro Times and obviously no fan of Mr. Snyder or pro-Right to Work legislators in Lansing, aptly summed up the 2014 Michigan election results in just a few words:  Organized Labor, “which has been staunchly in the Dems’ corner, was routed on the right-to-work issue.”[14]

These results confirmed that pundit Matthew Yglesias, cofounder of the Vox.com general-interest news site, had had the right idea back in late 2012 when he suggested that passage of the Michigan Right to Work law would be a political “tipping point.”  If “right-to-work can pass in Michigan,” wrote Mr. Yglesias back then, “then why shouldn’t Republicans press for it in Wisconsin or Ohio or Pennsylvania?”[15]

‘Where Indiana Goes, So Goes the Nation’?

While Mr. Yglesias regarded Michigan as a portent, other pundits had already cited Indiana as a serious blow to forced union dues.  In early 2012, Abby Rapoport, then a staff writer for the pro-forced unionism American Prospect, publicly expressed her fear that the Right to Work victory in Indiana would represent a “turning point in American labor history” and “not simply a loss in power” for Hoosier union officials.

The article published by Ms. Rapoport the day the H.B.1001 was signed into law even bore the title, “Where Indiana Goes, So Goes the Nation.”

Since Wisconsin’s Act 10 and the Indiana and Michigan Right to Work laws were enacted, and even more so since citizens in these three states effectively ratified these statutes by lavishly rewarding at the polls the politicians who had supported them, Right to Work activism has indeed spread like wildfire in state after state.

In last year’s elections, Right to Work increased its legislative strength substantially in forced-unionism states like West Virginia, New Hampshire, New Mexico, Pennsylvania, Montana, Missouri, Delaware and Maine.  Legislative debates and roll-call floor votes on Right to Work measures this year are likely or possible in all of the aforementioned states, as well as in several others.

Of course, in every case where Right to Work is brought up for legislative consideration, the union political machine will surely mount a furious campaign to defeat the bill.  For more than half a century, no Right to Work law has been adopted without first facing intense opposition.

Fifty years ago this fall, Big Labor and the Lyndon B. Johnson presidential administration launched what they hoped and expected would be a lightning-fast campaign to eliminate the Right to Work enclaves in the national private-sector economy.  At that time, more than three-quarters of American business employees held jobs in workplaces where compulsory union membership dues and fees were authorized and promoted by federal policy.

Tide of Forced Unionism Began to Recede After Right to Work Allies Successfully Defended Taft-Hartley 14(b)

In 1965, Right to Work supporters’ immediate goal was simply to prevent the 19 state bans on forced unionism then in effect, for the most part in lightly-populated states, from being effectively rendered null and void with regard to private-sector employees through repeal of Sec. 14(b) of the Taft-Hartley Amendments to the National Labor Relations Act (NLRA).

While Sec. 8(a)(3) of the NLRA gives Big Labor the green light to browbeat employers into agreeing to fire employees, or never hire them in the first place, for refusal to bankroll a union, Sec. 14(b) states that nothing in the NLRA should

be construed as authorizing the execution or application of agreements requiring membership in a labor organization as a condition of employment in any State or Territory in which such execution or application is prohibited by State or Territorial law.

The union hierarchy’s goal in the 14(b) battle was to see to it that there would no longer be any exceptions tolerated to the national pro-forced unionism policy.

But after Sen. Everett Dirksen (R-Ill.) and other opponents of compulsory unionism in his chamber, with ample grass-roots assistance from members of the National Right to Work Committee and other citizens’ groups, beat back 14(b) repeal in late 1965 and early 1966, private-sector compulsory unionism actually began gradually to recede.

By 1990, the share of all U.S. private-sector employees holding jobs in states with Right to Work protections had risen to 33.7%.[16] By 2010, the Right to Work share of all U.S. private-sector employment had risen to 39.4%.  As of 2013, the most recent year for which annual data are available at this time, it stood at 44.6%.

Politicians who stand up for voluntary unionism today have every reason to believe, based on the recent electoral experiences of Wisconsin, Indiana and Michigan documented above, that once they succeed in overcoming Big Labor obstruction and pass legislation curtailing union officials’ monopoly privileges, voters will reward them for their efforts.

State and federal battles over the Right to Work issue have been breaking out regularly ever since forced unionism as a condition of employment first became widespread during the 1940’s, and union-label politicians and pundits who want the issue to go away like to pretend that it doesn’t motivate voters any more.

But the record, as we’ve just seen, shows that’s just not so.  Eight decades after Congress passed the original National Labor Relations Act and thus cleared the way for compulsory unionism to spread across the nation, nearly 45% of America’s private-sector employees live in states where this coercive system is prohibited by law.

The Right to Work movement is stronger than ever before.  And the late, lamented journalist Robert Novak’s 18-year-old description of voluntary unionism’s appeal — “It’s so old-fashioned, it’s a brand-new idea”[17] — continues to ring true.


Stan Greer is the National Institute for Labor Relations Research’s senior research associate.  He may reached by e-mail at stg@nrtw.org or by phone at 703-321-9606.   Nothing here is to be construed as an attempt to aid or hinder the passage of any bill before Congress or any state legislature.


[1] Dave Cook, “Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker Finds Lessons in Recall Fight,” Christian Science Monitor, June 18, 2012.

[2] M.D. Kittle, “Big Labor, ‘Looking for Revenge,’ Expects to Dump $300 Million Into 2014 Elections,” Wisconsin Reporter, February 24, 2014.

[3] John H. Richardson, “Richard Trumka, American,” Expects to Dump $300 Million Into 2014 Elections,” Esquire, December 2011, pagination unavailable.

[4] Visit https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=NIQyg3cY8wo to watch a video of Mr. Saunders making this prediction.

[5] Craig Gilbert, “Highest Turnout For Mid-Term in Wisconsin in at Least 64 Years,” Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel, November 5, 2014 blog post.

[6] Patrick Marley, “Scott Walker Sworn For New Term, Recommits to His Agenda,” Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel, January 5, 2015.

[7] Bowdeya Tweh, “Pols Supporting Right to Work Will Pay, Labor Leader Says,” Northwest Indiana Times, January 31, 2012.

[8] See the Wikipedia entries for “Indiana Senate” and “Indiana House of Representatives.”

[9] See,. e.g., Tom LoBianco, “One Party State?  Big Republican Wins Marginalize Indiana Democrats,” Chesteron Tribune, November 5, 2014.

[10] Jeff Cranson, “Is Mike Bouchard’s Support of Right-to-Work a Hail Mary For His Campaign For Governor?” Grand Rapids Press, July 15, 2010.

[11] See http://unionstats.com —  a web site maintained by labor economists Barry Hirsch and David Macpherson, to compare 2012 union densities in Michigan and the other 49 states.

[12] Mike Tobin, AP, “Michigan Approves Right-to-Work Legislation Amid Intense Protests,” Fox News, December 11, 2012.

[13] Ashley Killough, “Hoffa Predicts ‘Civil War’ in Michigan,” CNN Political Ticker, December 11, 2012.

[14] Larry Gabriel, “Stir It Up: There’s Reason For Hope For Michigan Democrats in 2016,” Detroit Metro Times, November 12, 2014.

[15] Matthew Yglesias, “Michigan Goes Right-to-Work,” Slate Moneybox, December 7, 2012.

[16] See “Total Full-Time and Part-Time Employment by State” at  http://bea.gov/iTable/iTable.cfm?reqid=70&step=1&isuri=1&acrdn=4#reqid=70&step=24&isuri=1&7022=4&7023=0&7001=44&7090=70 on the U.S. Commerce Department’s Bureau of Economic Analysis web site.

[17] January 18, 1997 transcript of CNN’s “Capital Gang.”