In 2003 trade unions in Idaho launched a campaign to repeal the state’s 1980s-era Right To Work law, which had hobbled organized labor by banning mandatory dues-collection in union workplaces. The petition drive gathered enough signatures to place an initiative before voters, but during the certification process county clerks disallowed thousands of them, so the measure didn’t make it onto the 2004 ballot. While the campaign was under way, though, drivers heading west on I-90 toward better-paying jobs across the state line in Spokane would come across a billboard that read, IF RIGHT TO WORK IS SO GOOD, WHY ARE YOU WORKING IN WASHINGTON?

Two years on, the I-90 billboard hosts an ad for Hooters, but the unions are trying again. And as in 2004, this time around the signature-gathering effort, a grassroots, bare-bones affair, is once more coming down to the wire.

Late last August the northern Idaho town of Coeur d’Alene hosted the annual county fair, one of the high points of which is the demolition derby. On the side of an old black Mercury were painted the words SMASH RIGHT TO WORK. The car’s entrance number was 86 (1986 was the year Idaho’s citizenry passed the Right To Work initiative, which, wags point out, resulted in citizens being allowed the “right to work for less”), and it was driven by the friend of a recently killed son of Brad Cederblom, a large, bearded, ironworkers’ union organizer. The words had been added to the car during a paint-party in front of the house of Barbara Harris, a retired electrical worker and president of the Northern Idaho Central Labor Council. They would serve, anti-Right To Workers hoped, as a low-cost magnet that would draw registered voters to sign the Repeal Right To Work petition. That summer day, in front of thousands of fans, many of them workers for local resource-sector companies, the Mercury came in second, stopping only when its back had been crumpled into the rear tires and its hood had been upended like the rocks on an earthquake’s fault line.

Yet the thousands of signatures the organizers were hoping for in the wake of this gutsy derby performance didn’t suddenly materialize, despite the fact that about half the electorate supports repeal, according to one Idaho State University poll. Instead, they came in from around the state over the following months in dribs and drabs, garnered at local parades, college football games, even at ski swaps and petition drives on courthouse steps. The old mining and lumber strongholds in the north–around Coeur d’Alene and the gritty industrial town of Lewiston–did generate many thousands of signatures. But in the south of the state, in the heavily populated and traditionally nonunion areas of Boise and Idaho Falls, where a high-tech beachhead has recently been established by the influx of companies like Micron, the campaign had largely failed to gain traction by year’s end. Even in the old railway hub of Pocatello, the movement didn’t really lift off in the summer and fall.

Now, with weeks left until the signature-gathering deadline, as the winter snows settle over the land and as the rivers freeze solid, organizers are scrambling for signatures, trying to reassure people that employers won’t blacklist those who sign their names in support of repeal. The Citizens’ Committee to Repeal Right To Work is sending out thousands of petitions through direct mailings, and the Idaho Education Association has been distributing petition forms to its thousands of members and rallying its activists to help gather signatures. The member organizations of a loose progressive network called United Vision for Idaho, which includes churches and community-based social justice groups, have been lending a hand, and volunteers from union halls across the north are pounding the sidewalks of towns and villages dotting this remote landscape.

To qualify for the ballot, 6 percent of the state’s registered voters, or about 48,000 people, will have to sign their names on the petitions, and the cutoff date for signatures is February 21. Dave Whaley, current president of the Idaho AFL-CIO, acknowledges that it’s a race against time. By early January more than 20,000 signatures had been verified. Thousands more had been deposited with county clerks around the state and were awaiting verification. But that still left a deficit of several thousand–exactly how many, the organizers didn’t know–to be gathered in the last six weeks of the campaign.

If the petition drive succeeds, it will automatically thrust Idaho to the fore of national labor politics. The national AFL-CIO, which sat on the sidelines during the signature-gathering process, would almost certainly arrive in force, hoping to set in motion a countrywide movement against the most restrictive antilabor laws. After all, there’s been no successful Right To Work repeal effort since Louisiana briefly overturned its law in the mid-1970s. To counter such a movement, conservatives in Washington and their corporate backers would likely weigh in against repeal and, as in 1985-86, throw millions of dollars into the fight.

“The basic reason for Right To Work is to enhance economic development by making it possible for companies to compete with [those in] other states and internationally,” says Steve Ahrens, of the solidly antiunion Idaho Association of Commerce and Industry, sitting in his office in downtown Boise, where his collection of model classic cars are on display. “It’s an important part of our economic development basket of incentives. And the business community will seek to retain it. The people of Idaho would take care of it right here in Idaho, and the more the national unions come in, the better it would be for our side. Idahoans traditionally don’t welcome interference from outside the state.”

Even if the initiative passes, the legislature–one of the most reliably conservative in the country in recent years–could overturn the vote. But if it did, it would likely set up a battle that would put labor conditions firmly at the center of state politics for years to come. And in a state whose politics have been skewed rightward by “morals” debates over the past decade, in a manner reminiscent of the political changes described by Thomas Frank in his book What’s the Matter With Kansas?, that could only be good news for progressives.

Despite Ahrens’s assertion that Idahoans dislike outside movements coming into their state, Right To Work is nothing if not the creation of a national conservative movement. During the first half of the 1980s the Virginia-based National Right To Work Committee began targeting states that it thought were ripe for an assault on union power. In one state after another, mainly in the South and then, increasingly, in the West–states that were swinging into the conservative bloc that formed the bedrock of Reaganism–the committee either pushed sympathetic legislators to propose Right To Work laws or organized initiative campaigns. By 1985 twenty states had passed laws gutting union power in the workplace and stating that, even in places where a union contract was in effect, with its protections covering all employees, workers couldn’t be required to pay union dues.

Idaho was the twenty-first state the committee went after, its operations coordinated by a roving political consultant named Bill Wilson. At the time Idaho still had a Democratic governor, and when the Republican-controlled legislature passed Right To Work, he vetoed it. Undeterred, the committee launched an initiative campaign. Their language was, from the get-go, disingenuous. Idaho’s economy was in deep trouble, and many Idahoans came to believe that Right To Work would guarantee them employment. The committee did nothing to disabuse them of that notion. On election day the measure narrowly passed, and soon afterward stories started surfacing of people going into company offices and demanding work, only to be told the companies weren’t hiring.

As it turned out, 1986 was the high-water mark for Right To Workers. Idaho was the last state to pass Right To Work until 2001–when, amid a new assault on unions, and with Republicans in Congress along with groups like the Heritage Foundation pushing for passage of a National Right To Work Act, the committee managed to convince Oklahoma to enact such legislation. But despite coming in late, Idaho’s law profoundly altered the state’s labor conditions. The new law banned the union shop and set in motion a barrage of other changes that cumulatively eroded union power in the once-strong organized-labor state, lowered wages and made it harder for unions to maintain good benefits packages when negotiating contracts. In 1985 about 22 percent of Idaho’s workforce was unionized. Today, the Bureau of Labor Statistics estimates, that number is 5 to 6 percent; the state AFL-CIO puts it at 9 percent.

Shortly after the initiative the Democrats went into a tailspin, partly because unions had been so constricted in what sorts of political activities they could engage in. Bill Wilson reportedly told a rival consultant that his campaign had, as a side product, “killed off” the state’s Democratic machine.

The newly ascendant GOP repealed the state’s prevailing wage statute–known as Little Davis-Bacon, a reference to the federal Davis-Bacon prevailing wage laws. It banned public-employee unions from making political contributions and engaging in voter outreach campaigns aimed at nonunion members. It also blocked increases in the state’s minimum wage (the State of Washington, by contrast, now has a minimum wage more than $2 per hour higher than that mandated by the federal government) and ended the paying of mandatory overtime if an employee worked more than eight hours in a given day. At the same time, the state’s Supreme Court, its justices directly elected by an increasingly conservative populace, consistently upheld the state’s “fire at will” provisions, which allowed employers to fire nonunion employees without reason.

Less tangibly, since unions still had to represent nonunion members in any workplace in which a union-negotiated contract held sway, the incentives for joining a trade union and participating in its organizing work declined. As a result, the culture of union participation began to break down. Today there are supermarkets in Idaho that are technically union workplaces but that have virtually no union members on staff. The same holds in some of the old timber mills and paper-pulping plants. “The longer it goes, the less in touch your children are with what they have lost,” believes Cindy Hedge, the treasurer of the Citizens Committee to Repeal Right To Work, whose son works a nonunion job as a manager at a Petco for just over $10 an hour. “The leadership isn’t educating our children.”

“Why?” one 50-year-old union organizer in Lewiston recalls a colleague responding when asked whether he wanted to join the union, an act that would have cost him $46 a month in dues. “I can get the exact same as you for nothing.”

“We’re the testing grounds,” says Dave Whaley, in his offices on the outskirts of Boise. A big man in a bright checked wool shirt and jeans, with a white walrus mustache and neatly parted gray hair, Whaley believes Right To Work has profoundly changed the state’s political culture. “We’re the places anti-worker rules are brought. And if they work they take them to other states and try to ram them down their throats as well.”

As a result of the two-decade rollback of union influence in the state, many labor organizers argue, Idaho’s unskilled workers toil for rock-bottom wages. Unemployment is, as boosters point out, low. But while the federal minimum wage is $5.15 per hour, restaurants in Idaho, unlike in neighboring states, are allowed to pay workers barely $3 (the shortfall between that and the minimum is supposed to be covered by tips). Not surprisingly, the low-end fast-food chains and food stands on strips like 21st Street in Lewiston pay wages that do not even begin to cover the normal costs of living. Idaho has one of the lowest median wages in the country and comes in dead last on wages for female workers. Wal-Marts, call centers, communications companies and other boom employers pay entry-level wages that barely reach $7 per hour. Food pantries report increasing levels of hunger among the working poor, not just the unemployed–who also receive some of the worst welfare benefits in the country.

At the same time, a growing number of skilled workers in the construction trades are driving to the non-Right To Work states of Oregon and Washington, where wages are often as much as $5 per hour higher–as much as $10,000 a year–than even Idaho’s remaining jobs for unionized tradesmen. The state’s Labor Department estimated that in 1988 alone, 5,000 construction workers left Idaho. Researchers from the University of Idaho found that in 2000 skilled workers were leaving the state faster than younger workers were being trained to replace them. “We lost the cream of the crop,” explains Jim Kerns, ex-head of the state AFL-CIO and currently working as state coordinator of the repeal campaign. “They went to other states to make a living.”

Yet, says Shirl Boyce, vice president of economic development for the Boise Chamber of Commerce, companies looking to relocate to Idaho routinely tell him, “If you’re not Right To Work, we’re not interested in coming to your area.” Boyce–whose father worked in the mines from age 14, and who argues forcefully against the gutting of pensions and the denial of healthcare benefits to many workers–acknowledges with more than a trace of unhappiness that “the old notion of organized labor is not perceived to be a positive thing. We have to decide whether we’re going to be competitive or not, pretty frankly.”

What does that translate to? “We’ve seen long periods of time where we haven’t gained in terms of benefits and wages. We haven’t been able to bargain even for the cost of living,” says Jim Wallace of the Pacific Northwest Regional Council of Carpenters. “It’s pretty sad when you’ve got a state advertising its cheap labor.”

Lewiston, founded in the 1860s by migrants hoping to strike it rich in the goldfields along the Salmon River, is today the furthest-inland port in the country. Its geography is also a stark reminder of the heyday of industrial unionism. Situated at the confluence of the spectacular Snake and Salmon rivers, which were made navigable during the middle of the last century by a series of dams so that barges and large ships could transport lumber, paper, grain and minerals, the town was once at the epicenter of labor activism in the mountain West. It is towered over by the smoking chimneys of the vast Potlatch sawmill and pulping plant, the rotten-cabbage fumes pumped out by the plant a daily fact of life in the area, and it is home to vast silos storing grain from throughout the Midwest for shipping down the river to Portland and points overseas. Going all the way back to the days of the Wobblies, unions in this region have fought, and sometimes workers have died, for better contracts and working conditions.

At Potlatch, where trucks deliver huge numbers of tree trunks every day to be sorted and stacked by a gigantic crane on rails, the Steel Workers and other unions used to have thousands of members; today they have far fewer, but they still retain enough strength to generate some of the best labor contracts in the state. Yet in the wake of Right To Work large numbers of workers have opted out of paying union dues. As a result, in many workplaces unions are increasingly seen as toothless wonders. “You’ve got no power,” explains Kerns. “That employer is going to say to you, ‘Here’s what you get and that’s all you get.’ Or they say, ‘We’re not going to give you anything. Go on strike if you want.’ They can’t go on strike; they’ve got only five members. They couldn’t even maintain a picket line.”

But while Lewiston’s unions may seem part of another era, this story isn’t about a handful of Luddites waging a quixotic struggle against the inevitable march of time. At its heart the anti-Right To Work campaign is a relearning process: It is teaching people who’ve come of age in a Right To Work environment about the history of labor struggles, the benefits of union culture and the spiral of downward pressures on wages and benefits that is turning Idaho into a US version of Third World maquiladoras. In that sense, it ultimately goes far beyond unionism, becoming a battle about the future contours of the American economy.

Idaho’s resurgent fight around Right To Work is about the flexing of muscle: Can its proponents get enough states to maintain or enact Right To Work statutes by persuading them that the laws make states more “competitive” for potential employers? Or can unions and living-wage advocates resist Right To Work laws by highlighting the skills-and-brain drain that takes jobs in construction, carpentry, electrical work and other trades to higher-wage states? In northern Idaho unions have had some success in encouraging this trend, with skilled workers driving to Clarkston, Spokane and other towns in Oregon and Washington.

The most immediate question, of course, is, Can advocates of repeal get out their message and mobilize voters against these laws? “It’s not just, ‘How does it affect you and your wages?’ It’s about access to healthcare and retirement, people working two, three jobs just to survive,” says Jim Wallace. Explaining why, in the wake of Oklahoma’s passage of Right To Work, he sees it as particularly important to strike back against the movement, Dave Whaley says, “As long as you have Right To Work testing-grounds out there, the other states are going to be under assault, as they pick them off one state at a time.”

Even if the Repeal Right To Work campaign narrowly fails to gather enough signatures this time around, Whaley says, the issue is too important to drop. The lessons learned and the connections made with people around the state will, he argues, be vital for organizers looking to place the initiative on the ballot again two years down the road.