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Reeder: Workers should be free to choose

Published: Thursday, May 29, 2014 5:30 a.m. CDT • Updated: Wednesday, June 18, 2014 11:16 a.m. CDT

SPRINGFIELD – Thirty-one years ago, I gave a speech to my high school rhetoric class on how Illinois ought to become a right-to-work state.

Back when I was in high school, my hometown of Galesburg was an industrial center that churned out lawn mowers, refrigerators, steel buildings and outboard motors.

Industrial unions were powerful in Galesburg just as they were in nearby Peoria, Moline and all across Illinois.

So my speech calling for ending compulsory unionism was not particularly well received. After all, many of my classmates were the sons and daughters of union workers. To them, I was preaching apostasy.

A right-to-work law simply means that employees cannot be forced to join or otherwise pay union dues in order to keep their jobs.

Today, when I visit my hometown, I feel sadness. Those union factory jobs have evaporated. Many of my classmates have moved to other states to raise their families. The Maytag refrigerator plant has been shuttered. The Butler Manufacturing factory closed. And a plant making Lawn Boy lawn mowers shut down.

Galesburg is hardly unique.

When I lived in Rock Island in the 1990s, I’d often ask folks what they did for a living. More often than not, they’d respond: “Well, I used to work at …”

Today, industrial unions are a shadow of their former selves. Factory jobs are migrating to right-to-work states – places where the marketplace, not union coercion, determine wages.

The last time I wrote on this topic, union leaders responded by saying things are much worse in right-to-work states.

Baloney.

Take a look at our neighbors in Iowa and Indiana. Both states are right-to-work states, but the economies there are chugging along quite nicely.

Just consider these statistics compiled by the Illinois Policy Institute:

• A net of roughly 5 million Americans moved from the non-right-to-work states to right-to-work states from 2000 to 2010. That’s an average of about one person every minute.

• Right-to-work states experienced population growth of 15.3 percent while population growth in non-right-to-work states was 5.9 percent between 2000 and 2010.

• 28.5 percent of Americans lived in right-to-work states in 1970; by 2008, that percentage rose to nearly 40 percent (to over 121 million).

Even Michigan, once the cradle of organized labor, has adopted a right-to-work law. By contrast, Illinois has clung to an outdated model of compulsory unionism.

The fact of the matter is that many people who belong to unions would rather not be members. They are given little choice but to keep seeing a portion of their paychecks going to union bosses.

Nowhere is that more evident than among government workers. When workers in Wisconsin were given a choice about whether to join a union, many opted out.

The American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees Council representing city and county workers in Milwaukee has experienced a 61 percent drop in membership during the first two years that a public employee, right-to-work law has been in place. And the AFSCME council representing state workers saw its membership fall 35 percent, the MacIver Institute reports.

Labor unions like to talk about “empowering” workers. The reality is much different.

Shouldn’t workers be free to choose?

• Scott Reeder is a veteran statehouse reporter and a journalist with Illinois News Network, a project of the Illinois Policy Institute. He can be reached at sreeder@illinoispolicy.org.

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