Voters Keep Rewarding State Politicians For Supporting Right to Work Laws

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In 2020 Elections, Big Labor Threats to Punish Lawmakers at the Polls for Votes Against Compulsory Unionism Prove Once Again to Be Hollow

As Election Day 2020 approached, union bosses boasted about how their political machine would punish lawmakers in state after state for standing up to Big Labor and passing Right to Work laws.

In late summer and early fall, union strategists and their allied politicians publicly anticipated at least making headway towards reinstating forced union dues in the five states — Indiana, Michigan, Wisconsin, West Virginia and Kentucky — that have adopted and implemented Right to Work laws in the last nine years.

Unfortunately for Big Labor, in all of these states, voters foiled their schemes.

In fact, in the two states that most recently passed their Right to Work laws — West Virginia and Kentucky — union-label candidates collectively got clobbered.

West Virginia Union Chief’s Bold Prediction: ‘[T]here Are Going to Be a Number More [Big] Labor-Endorsed Candidates Elected to Our State Senate’

A news story[1] filed on November 2 quoted West Virginia AFL-CIO President Josh Sword gleefully anticipating the political punishment a $5 million Big Labor front group (lavishly funded by his own union conglomerate) would deal out to the elected officials who support the Mountain State Right to Work law adopted in 2016.

He boldly predicted:  “At the end of Election Day there are going to be a number more [Big] [L]abor-endorsed candidates elected to our state Senate . . . .”

What actually happened is that all of the pro-forced unionism West Virginia Senate challengers backed by the union boss-controlled “Mountain State Values” outfit were defeated. [2]

The state Senate’s GOP caucus, which had supplied all 17 of the chamber’s votes for Right to Work to pass it by a razor-thin margin in 2016,[3] expanded from 20 to 23.[4]

In the state House of Delegates, the Democrat caucus, which unanimously voted against Right to Work in 2016, shriveled to just 24 out of 100 seats.  At the time West Virginia’s ban on forced union dues and fees was approved, the anti-Right to Work Democrat caucus held 36 seats in the chamber.[5]

Big Labor Democrat Lawmakers in Kentucky Predicted Party’s Lock-Step Support For Reinstating Compulsory Unionism Would Be Politically Beneficial

In neighboring Kentucky, which gave the green light for Right to Work legislation in early 2017, the pattern was strikingly similar.

Repeal of the Bluegrass State Right to Work law and restoration of force-dues privileges for union bosses was a key provision of the labor-policy platform unveiled by Democrat members of the state House of Representatives on Labor Day, just as the 2020 campaigns were heating up.[6]

When asked by a reporter why rewriting state law so employees could once again be fired for refusal to join or bankroll an unwanted union was such a “big priority” for her party, House Minority Leader Angie Hatton (D-Whitesburg) explained:

We owe unions a real debt of gratitude . . . .  So while we are taking a moment to celebrate labor today, let’s not forget labor unions, and [repealing] the Right-to-Work law would be an amazing way to thank them.

Big Labor state Reps. Al Gentry (D-Hatton) and Jeff Donohue (D-Fairdale) insisted going after Kentucky’s three-and-a-half year old Right to Work law would benefit, not hurt, their fellow party members politically:  “We believe this law is . . . unpopular here.”

In reality, Kentucky Democrat politicians’ pandering to Big Labor completely backfired.

On Election Day, the number of seats held in the state’s 100-member House of Representatives held by Republicans soared from 62[7] to 75[8].

The heavily pro-Right to Work state GOP was thus handed a House supermajority.

In 2021, Republicans will also have a supermajority in the Kentucky Senate, with 30 out of 38 seats.

Both Kentucky chambers’ Democrat caucuses are now substantially[9] smaller[10] than they were at the time of Right to Work passage.

Pro-Forced Unionism State Legislative Candidates Also Underperformed in Biden-Won States

The five states that have passed Right to Work laws since 2012 did not vote in lock-step in the 2020 presidential race.  While West Virginia, Kentucky and Indiana were all won decisively by GOP President Donald Trump, Michigan and Wisconsin were narrowly carried by Democrat challenger Joe Biden.

In the Wolverine State two years before, Democrat politicians seeking election or reelection to the Legislature had loudly touted their collective opposition to Right to Work in an effort to fire up union campaign operatives to work harder on their behalf.

Just a few days before the 2018 general elections, would-be House Speaker and Rep. Brian Elder (D-Bay City) actually put reinstitution of forced union dues and fees as a job condition at the very top of his party’s legislative agenda:  “The very first bill we will pass [if voters grant us control of the House] will be a repeal of the Right to Work law.”[11]

Despite the fact that 2018 was generally a good year for Democrats electorally, Elder’s plans didn’t pan out.  When all the votes were counted, the GOP caucuses who had delivered all the votes that sent Right to Work legislation to Gov. Rick Snyder’s desk in late 2012 were headed into 2019 with a 58-52 House majority and a 22-16 Senate majority.[12]

Big Labor politicians in Lansing weren’t deterred.  At the beginning of the next session of the Legislature, Elder and Rep. John Chirkun (D-Roseville) simultaneously introduced two bills to repeal Michigan’s Right to Work law, and both measures immediately won the endorsement of the entire House Democrat caucus.[13]

With ample financial support coming in from national groups like the Democratic Legislative Campaign Committee, Elder and his cohorts clearly believed they could pull off  a House takeover in 2020 after falling short in 2018.  The headline of the Internet version of an October 27 analysis for WKAR-FM (Lansing) said it all:  “Michigan Democrats Set Sights on Retaking State House.”

It was not to be.

Even as the Biden-Harris ticket won Michigan by roughly 154,000 votes, according to the official tally, pro-forced unionism Democrats failed to gain any ground whatsoever in the state House.  Going into 2021, they will once again hold 52 seats to the GOP’s 58.[14]  (Since Senate seats in Michigan were not up for election in 2020, there was not any change in the upper chamber’s makeup, either.)

Nearly Six Years After They Overwhelmingly Favored Right to Work Passage, Republicans ‘Will Retain Commanding Majorities’ in the Wisconsin Legislature in 2021

In Wisconsin, as in Michigan,[15] Big Labor-allied Democrat strategists anticipated as Election Day 2020 approached that they had an opportunity to gain ample ground in legislative races thanks both to their party’s substantial fundraising advantage in the Badger State[16] and to an evident trend running against the GOP in prosperous suburban districts normally carried by Republicans in the past.[17]

But despite holding these two significant advantages, Democrat politicians failed to make any overall progress in regaining control over the Wisconsin Legislature in 2020.  Most voters plainly did not want to return the reins over lawmaking to a state party whose top leadership even today is publicly committed to destroying[18] the protections afforded to employees by the Wisconsin Right to Work law adopted in 2015. 

Just a few days after state Democrat Chairman Ben Wikler had exulted he was “blown away by the energy and support that people have come through with” for his party’s state electoral efforts,[19] Democrats actually lost two seats in the Senate to sink to a 12-21 minority.[20] 

The Democrats now hold two fewer Senate seats than they did when the chamber narrowly adopted a Right to Work law over their unanimous opposition nearly six years ago.[21]

While Democrats did offset this loss with a two-seat gain in the state Assembly, the lower chamber’s GOP caucus will still hold a lopsided 61-38 majority of seats next year, roughly the same as when Assembly Republicans unanimously voted to make Wisconsin a Right to Work state.

In the words of television news anchor and producer Frederica Freyberg, currently hostess of Here and Now for PBS Wisconsin, Republicans “will retain commanding majorities in the state Legislature heading into next year.”[22]

Through Five Election Cycles, AFL-CIO Czar’s Threats to Punish Hoosier State Right to Work Allies Have Proven To Be Empty

When Indiana became the 23rd Right to Work state in early 2012, it was the first state to outlaw compulsory unionism in more than a decade.  Prior to that, none of the Great Lakes states had a Right to Work law on the books.

Union bosses were determined to dissuade other states from following in Indiana’s footsteps by making an example of Hoosier Right to Work supporters.  In a late January 2012 interview, AFL-CIO czar Richard Trumka bluntly threatened legislators who had voted for Right Work.  Candidates who had stood up to the union hierarchy “should expect heavy campaigning against them in the upcoming elections,” warned Trumka.  The burly union boss continued:  “They will pay a price at the polls.”[23]

The November after Trumka made that threat, the GOP House caucus that had supplied all the votes to make Indiana a Right to Work state expanded by a full nine seats, from 60 to 69. 

In the state Senate, the heavily pro-Right to Work GOP caucus retained a hefty 37-13 majority.[24]

Today, despite recent hopes by Big Labor Hoosier legislators that they were finally turning a corner,[25] union-label Democrats are heading into 2021 with just 29 out of 100 seats in the state House and just 11 out of 50 seats in the state Senate.[26]

In other words, nearly nine years after Richard Trumka vowed to make the (exclusively Republican) lawmakers in Indiana who had voted for Right to Work “pay a price at the polls,” Republican control over the Indiana Legislature is tighter than it was then. 

Lawmakers in the remaining 23 forced-unionism states who are now contemplating whether to support legislation establishing Right to Work protections should keep Trumka’s track record in mind when union bosses threaten them with political retaliation today.

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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] Jeff Jenkins, “Labor Hopes It’s Done Enough to Gain Senate Seats.” MetroNews, November 2, 2020.

[2] Andy Gallagher, “West Virginia’s Second Republican Revolution,” West Virginia Record, November 30, 2020.

[3] Kennie Bass and Jeff Morris, “Right-to-Work Bill Passes West Virginia Senate,” WHCS-TV (ABC, Charleston, W.Va.), January 20, 2016.

[4] See Footote 2, supra.

[5] Paul Nyden, “Anti-Worker Bills Are on the Move in West Virginia,” posted on the International Brotherhood of Teamsters web site, January 24, 2016.

[6] Karolina Buczek, “Kentucky House Democrats Push For a Minimum Wage Increase, Other Worker-Friendly Laws,” WLEX-TV (NBC, Lexington, Ky.), September 7, 2020.

[7] Joe Sonka, “Republicans Expand Dominat Supermajority in Kentucky State House Races,” Louisville Courier-Journal, November 4, 2020.

[8] Brandon Robert, “Kentucky Democrats Ponder Future,” Spectrum News 1 (Lexington, Ky.), November 10, 2020.

[9] Daniel Desrochers, “Kentucky House Republicans Select Younger, Moderate Leadership Team,” Lexington Herald-Leader, December 1, 2016.

[10] Bill Estep, “Republicans Keep Lopsided Control of Kentucky Senate,” Lexington Herald-Leader, November 9, 2016.

[11] John Wisely, “If Dems Take Lansing, Repealing Pension Tax, Right to Work Tops Agenda,” Detroit Free Press,

[12] Jonathan Oosting, “Michigan Republicans Keep Control of State House, Senate,” Detroit News, November 7, 2018.

[13] Michigan House Democrats, “House Dems Move to Repeal Right to Work in Michigan,” January 10, 2019 press release.

[14] Anna Liz Nichols, “Republicans Continue Majority in Michigan’s State House,” Associated Pres, November 5, 2020.

[15] Abigail Censky, “Michigan Democrats Set Sights on Retaking State House,” WKAR (Lansing), October 27, 2020.

[16] Daniel Bice, “Wisconsin Democrats Ride Anti-Trump Fervor to Big Money Advantage Over Republicans,” Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel, October 28, 2020.

[17] Amanda Quintana, “What’s at Stake in the State Legislature This Election?”

[18] John Nichols, “The Governor Who Beat Scott Walker Is Ready to Overturn Walker’s Anti-Labor Agenda,” The Nation, March 7, 2019.

[19] See Footnote 16, supra.

[20] Frederica Freyberg, “New GOP Leader Emerges After House Race,” PBS Wisconsin, November 6, 2020.

[21] Erik Lorernzsonn and Shawn Johnson, “Senate Passes Right to Work Bill,” Wisconsin Public Radio, February 25, 2015.

[22] See Footnote 20, supra.

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

[24] See Ballotpedia.org, “Indiana State Senate Elections, 2012” and “Indiana House of Representatives Elections, 2012” entries.

[25] Chris Sikih, “Dems Think Trump’s Unpopularity With Suburban Voters Could Lose the GOP Statehouse Seats,” Indianapolis Star, September 1, 2020.

[26] Tom Davies, “Republican Wins Tighten Their Control Over Indiana Legislature,” Northwest Indiana Post-Tribune, November 5, 2020.