A new wave of bills that would allow workers to opt out of joining unions is expected from Maine to New Mexico as Republicans look to capitalize on statehouse gains to put new limits on organized labor.
Nearly half of U.S. states already have such laws—called “right to work” measures by backers—which allow employees in unionized workplaces to refrain from joining a union and paying dues. But only three states have become part of those ranks in the past two decades: Oklahoma in 2001 and Michigan and Indiana in 2012.
Supporters of such laws say November’s election could provide new momentum as legislatures reconvene and Republicans have the largest number of state lawmakers since 1920. But such bills would face opposition from labor leaders and Democrats, while some Republicans see the often divisive issue as a distraction.
Backers say workers should be able to choose whether to join a union, and they say the laws can make their states more attractive to employers.
Opponents say the measures effectively depress wages and benefits for everyone, as well as undercut labor’s political power, by reducing union membership rolls.
New Mexico, Maine, Wisconsin and Missouri, among other states, are expected to take up bills that would forbid union-membership requirements. Even with the GOP electoral gains, many of the states debating the issue still have split party control in their capitols.
Republican legislators in Missouri, who control the House and Senate there, say that while support is building, some GOP lawmakers remain resistant, and such a measure faces opposition from Gov. Jay Nixon, a Democrat.
Republican lawmakers in West Virginia, which also has a Democratic governor, haven’t decided whether to make the issue a priority after taking control of the Legislature for the first time in more than 80 years.
In New Mexico, Republicans will control the House for the first time in 60 years, and a spokesman for Republican Gov. Susana Martinez said she plans to work with lawmakers to pass a measure barring mandatory union membership in the coming legislative session. Democrats retained control of the state Senate.
Our agenda “includes making New Mexico a right-to-work state because no one should ever be forced to join a union,” said Rep. Don Tripp, slated to become the speaker of the House.
New Mexico AFL-CIO President Jon Hendry sees the issue as a waste of time in a state that has struggled to create jobs. Labor leaders are prepared to lobby against it and try to shift the focus to economic initiatives that follow the success of state incentives for the film industry, he said.
“There are much bigger problems in the state of New Mexico,” Mr. Hendry said. “It is the wrong time to have the wrong conversation.”
Some Republican governors don’t see a pressing need for such laws. Ohio’s John Kasich has said it isn’t a critical issue for his state, while Wisconsin’s Scott Walker has said he would rather focus on issues such as tax cuts and education.
Mr. Walker said the measure is less of a priority in Wisconsin after its Legislature passed a law four years ago that ended most collective-bargaining rights for government workers.
But state Senate Majority Leader Scott Fitzgerald said members of the Legislature want to tackle the issue, particularly after the GOP expanded its majorities in the state House and Senate.
“There is outside pressure and internal pressure to deal with the issue,” Mr. Fitzgerald said.
Still, Mr. Fitzgerald cautioned that any legislation has to take into account the training that trade unions provide to workers. Some companies also would rather not see such legislation because they have good relationships with organized labor, he said.
One of the few election bright spots for Democrats last fall came in Kentucky, where the party held on to its majority in the House. The result is that advocates of such legislation there are pushing for county-level measures, in part to pressure lawmakers to take up the issue at the state level.
Backers of the legislative effort in Kentucky say the state is losing jobs to neighbors, such as Indiana and Tennessee, that have union-opt-out laws.
“This is not about ideology. This about the daily economic reality,” said Jim Waters, president of Bluegrass Institute for Public Policy Solutions, a free-market think tank in Lexington, Ky.