In recent years, Republicans have dramatically intensified their war on organized labor. The battle plan was simple: Pass laws that limit union political spending and make it more difficult to collect dues. Since 2010, six states have passed “right-to-work” laws, meaning that workers can benefit from union representation without paying to keep the union funded. In other states, Republican legislatures have hamstrung public-sector unions by denying them collective-bargaining power.
Everyone remembers the high-profile barottle in Wisconsin that Governor Scott Walker launched in 2011, but the union-busting efforts have not slowed down. In 2017, Missouri and then Kentucky’s right-to-work laws were rammed through within weeks of Republicans’ gaining power, and Iowa successfully limited the collective-bargaining power of public-sector unions. There was a push to do the same in New Hampshire, though it failed.
Few of these battles drew the same attention as what happened in Wisconsin, particularly after Donald Trump’s carnival began dominating news coverage. But there is good reason to believe that all these efforts will profoundly change the future of American politics.
In a new study that will soon be released as a National Bureau of Economic Research working paper, James Feigenbaum of Boston University, Alexander Hertel-Fernandez of Columbia, and Vanessa Williamson of the Brookings Institution examined the long-term political consequences of anti-union legislation by comparing counties straddling a state line where one state is right-to-work and another is not. Their findings should strike terror into the hearts of Democratic Party strategists: Right-to-work laws decreased Democratic presidential vote share by 3.5 percent.
The study found that impacts persist in down-ballot races, and have given Republicans more power in the Senate, House, and governors’ mansions, as well as in state legislatures. This leads to a vicious cycle wherein the GOP can use that power to further suppress votes, gut union rights, and gerrymander legislatures—in other words, embark on a fundamental retooling of American political mechanics.
The decimation of the blue wall in 2016 may have been driven by Trump’s unique candidacy, but right-to-work laws had been weakening the foundation for years. In 2014, Republican Governor Rick Snyder’s narrow victory against Democratic opponent Mark Schauer may well have gone in a different direction were it not for the state’s 2012 right-to-work law. It’s not impossible to imagine that progressive Senate candidate Russ Feingold would have beaten Tea Party–backed incumbent Ron Johnson in 2016 if only Wisconsin private- and public-sector unions had not been completely gutted. The effect of right-to-work laws, according to this research, are large enough that it could have easily cost Hillary Clinton Wisconsin and Michigan—two states that went right-to-work before the 2016 elections.