WASHINGTON — When Indiana Gov. Mitch Daniels signed legislation this month making Indiana the nation's first new right-to-work state in more than a decade, it turned up the heat on a long-simmering debate about the true intent and impact of the controversial anti-union laws.
By making it illegal to force employees to join a union or pay union dues as a condition of employment, state right-to-work laws are touted as a prime enticement for businesses looking to relocate and keep their labor costs down.
That clearly was Daniels' thinking.
"Seven years of evidence and experience ultimately demonstrated that Indiana did need a right-to-work law to capture jobs for which, despite our highly-rated business climate, we are not currently being considered," Daniels said in a statement after the signing.
That logic has found new relevance in states' competition for jobs following the Great Recession. As states offer up a slate of smokestack-friendly incentives to lure businesses, conservative lawmakers nationwide are dusting off the decades-old right-to-work legislation for a new-millennium revival.
Last year, nearly a dozen state right-to-work proposals were introduced, but none became law. It's unclear whether Indiana's new law will change that dynamic, but neighboring states have taken notice now that Indiana is the nation's 23rd right-to-work state, and the only one in the hard-hit Rust Belt region.
"It does mean that Indiana is likely to get a lot of business expansion that might otherwise go into Michigan, especially in the western part of the state," said Paul Kersey, director of labor policy at the conservative Mackinac Center for Public Policy in Midland, Mich. "But pretty much the entire state has the potential to be affected by that. Right-to-work is a big draw for employers."
Other areas of the country also are taking a closer look at the legislation. In New Hampshire, a new right-to-work proposal is working its way through the state legislature after Gov. John Lynch vetoed the measure last year. Both GOP gubernatorial candidates in Missouri support right-to-work laws.
And in Oregon, a conservative think tank just released a study that claims that if a new right-to-work law were enacted there this year, the state would add 50,000 new jobs by 2016.
After Republican attacks on collective-bargaining rights drew intense backlash last year in Wisconsin and Ohio, right-to-work laws could become the safe vehicle of choice for GOP lawmakers to rein in union organizing without igniting too much of a firestorm.
"There's a case to be made that they might be," Kersey said. "Right-to-work is familiar and more mature. It's been around since the 1940s. The unions are familiar with it, workers are familiar with it.'
Critics of right-to-work laws say they allow non-union members to reap higher union-negotiated wages and benefits without sharing the costs. This makes it harder for unions to support themselves financially, which undermines their bargaining strength.
Numerous studies have found that wages for both union and non-union workers are lower in states with right-to-work laws. Others have found that workplace safety suffers in right-to-work states, where workers are less likely to secure job safety enhancements beyond federal and state regulations.