Right-to-Work Battle Inches Toward Connecticut

Connecticut in some ways resembles Michigan, a high-wage industrial state with about the same proportion of union membership as of 2011 -- 17.7 percent here, 18.3 percent there, compared with 11.8 percent for the nation.

A year ago, heck, six weeks ago, few people thought the heart of the United Auto Workers would become the nation's 24th right-to-work state. But it's now all done, complete with the governor's signature.

The shocking turnaround from union hotbed to anti-labor bastion followed a similar move by neighboring Indiana last February, and an ill-fated effort by Michigan's labor activists to boost their power in an Election Day referendum.

Can it happen in Connecticut? The short answer is not anytime soon because no Democrat-controlled state legislature would ever consider it in this era.

The map of right to work states closely resembles the red-state blue-state map of recent elections. Michigan, despite its status as a blue state, has a GOP governor and legislature — and outside, right-wing influences have made strong inroads there according to the Detroit Free Press.

But make no mistake: Just as the South moved from Democratic to Republican in the Reagan era, and stayed that way, the anti-union backlash represented by the right-to-work movement can creep into the blue states over time. Look at the map and think about Ohio, then Pennsylvania, and New Hampshire to the north.

Right-to-work laws, presented as common sense by their anti-union supporters, allow any worker to choose whether he or she will be a dues-paying member of a union. The bare majority of states are so-called closed-shop states, in which everyone must join a union once it's certified.

That simple distinction is a proxy for all sorts of pro-union and anti-union sentiment, and it's the subject of an endless debate about which one is better for economic development.

It seems clear that in recent years, growth has favored the right-to-work states. But unions and their allies argue that right-to-work laws, which certainly weaken unions, lead to lower prosperity, and not just for union workers. A rigorous 2011 study by the union-backed Economic Policy Institute showed that pay was 3.2 percent higher in closed-shop states even after eliminating the effects of higher cost, education and other factors.

That advantage, like the laws themselves, can change over time if enough jobs migrate to lower-cost, anti-union states. Connecticut, arguably the bluest state, will be among the last to fall.

Underlying all of this is a war over wages, with many fronts. Over the last generation, work has been devalued in favor of capital and ideas, which is good for technology development but has tended to divide and shrink the middle class -- to everyone's peril.

At the same time, there's been a backlash against real and perceived corruption by union leadership, and against real and perceived excess in public employee union benefits. That's feeding the right-to-work movement, just as the backlash against corporate boardroom and hedge-fund excesses fed the Dodd-Frank reforms and the re-election of Obama.

Unions in Connecticut need to be wary of that backlash, and temper their actions accordingly -- much as they'd like to right the wrongs of an economy that has left the working person behind.

What the union movement needs is stronger and faster enforcement of existing collective bargaining laws by the National Labor Relations Board. That would help end the state divide that allows corporations to play one state against another, as they also do with economic development aid, to no one's benefit.

And the state-by-state battle will move closer to the Northeast. Guess what heavily unionized state, with a Republican governor and legislature, is suddenly the nation's labor battleground? Yup, Ohio, the Connecticut Western Reserve.

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