Once the Midwest was the bastion of the labor movement. But the signing of a right-to-work bill in Wisconsin on March 9 brought to exactly half the number of states that prohibit contracts that require workers to pay union dues. In the Midwest, four key states have now entered the anti-union camp (Indiana, Michigan, Wisconsin and Iowa), and a fifth passed a right-to-work law that was overturned in a referendum.
The next question is whether the anti-union movement can find a foothold in the Northeast. The numbers say yes, and the key may be Pennsylvania.
As the chart shows, with the exception of New York, unions are hardly in a secure position in the region. The biggest declines in the percentage of employees who belong to unions during the past decade have occurred in New Jersey and Pennsylvania. (Vermont showed an increase, albeit from a very low base.)
Pennsylvania offers some of the political dynamic that was crucial to the right-to-work victories in the Midwest: Republican control of both houses of the legislature. In fact, Republican legislators in that state are trying to push a bill through the General Assembly this year. The governor is a Democrat but doesn’t seem to have a clear position on the issue. In any event, if Pennsylvania becomes the 26th state with such a law, the pressure will build in New Jersey.
But don’t expect any similar effort in New York, the most unionized state in the country. It is worth remembering that New York ranks No. 1 primarily because its public-sector workers are more unionized than in any other state (71%), much more than because of organized labor’s strength in the private sector (15% in the state and 16% in the city; nationally, 11% of all workers are unionized). Still, labor’s clout is more than enough to block such a radical change.