Q. We’ve heard in the news about the recently enacted Indiana right-to-work law. Could it have an effect on Illinois employers?
A. On Feb. 1, Indiana enacted the first right-to-work law adopted in this country in the past 10 years. The law prohibits employers and unions from making mandatory union membership (a standard provision in most union contracts) part of their labor contracts.
As a result, employees in Indiana covered by union contracts will be able to decide for themselves whether or not they want to join the union and pay union dues.
Indiana is the 23rd state to enact such a law and the first in the Midwestern industrial belt to do so in decades.
The law applies to practically all private Indiana employers, making it the first effort in Indiana to directly affect the role of unions in the private sector. The law does not apply to government employees, employees and employers subject to the federal Railway Labor Act, and employees who are employed on property over which the U.S. government has exclusive jurisdiction.
Illinois employers’ organizations may push for similar measures in Illinois.
The law represents a setback to organized labor in general. At a time when union membership in the entire country (particularly in the private sector) is at an all-time low, this is one more blow to the image of unions as an economic and political force.
To the extent other states feel compelled to enact similar measures, organized labor could suffer more setbacks. It also comes at a time when organized labor and its supporters have been under pressure from several fronts. President Obama has struggled to win approval of his nominees to the National Labor Relations Board, and collective bargaining has been the subject of major confrontations in Wisconsin and Ohio.
The law is likely to weaken the power of unions in Indiana as a result of the inevitable loss of members and their dues. However, the impact on Indiana employees covered by existing union contracts will occur gradually because the law only applies to union contracts entered into after March 14, 2012.
On the other hand, should Indiana’s action succeed in attracting new business, it is likely other states will begin to debate whether they must take similar steps. Similar bills have already been introduced in Maryland, Missouri, New Hampshire, New Jersey and West Virginia.
Time will tell whether Illinois will see a similar push. Should it happen here, organized labor will no doubt respond by vigorously defending its status.