As many state legislatures draw to a close, the labor movement is once again licking its wounds. Wisconsin became the 25th state to pass a Right-to-Work law, forbidding unions from requiring dues or a representation fee from workers they represent. It was the latest in a wave of anti-union policies that have been popping up across stretches of the Midwest and in once highly unionized states. While Right-to-Work advocates argue that the legislation provides employees with freedom of choice and ensures that union membership is not a condition of employment, it has always been an employer-driven movement for employer ends.

When a union wins an election to represent a group of workers, it is legally obligated to collectively bargain on their behalf. Right-to-Work means that unions cannot negotiate a contract that requires these same workers to pay dues or a similar representation fee for services. Under Right-to-Work, employees can opt out and free-ride at any time. And when some do, there are fewer union resources available to file grievances, represent employees, and bargain with employers. This slowly starves the union of their ability to bargain, where unions with fewer resources become less effective and less attractive to existing members, who then opt out. That’s the point.

Right-to-Work was hatched by business organizations in the 1940s as a means of curbing a growing and increasingly ambitious labor movement. The Christian American Association out of Houston was the first to champion Right-to-Work as a full-blown political slogan in 1941. The organization stood out in a crowded field for its fiery rhetoric against President Roosevelt and especially labor. But Right-to-Work quickly moved from the fringe to the mainstream. After the war, organizations like the Chamber of Commerce and the National Association of Manufacturers championed the laws with great effect. By the early spring of 1947, fourteen states had adopted Right-to-Work, and the Taft-Hartley Act, passed by Congress later that year, solidified the rights of states to pass and enforce these laws.

Debates over Right-to-Work once again became a staple of state legislatures in the 1950s, this time in the industrial heartland in states like Indiana and Ohio, the center of union strength. Unlike today, unions were big in the 1950s. They represented nearly a third of the nation’s workforce, and far higher shares of workers in manufacturing industries and the skilled trades; labor posed a significant check on managerial prerogatives. Capitalizing on fears over union power and revelations of union corruption in the McClellan Committee hearings, business leaders and ambitious politicians jumped on Right-to-Work and helped sponsor a wave of state ballot measures in the 1958 midterm elections. The ballot measures largely failed, partly because unions took time to build coalitions with other civic organizations and craft a message that linked the concerns of everyday union members to the fate of the broader middle class, and partly because the campaigns for Right-to-Work smacked of an overreach by business activists and opportunist politicians.

The latest wave of Right-to-Work activism comes on the heels of the Republican sweep in the 2010 midterm elections and the influx of money into politics following the Citizens United decision. With Congress more dysfunctional than ever, electorally relevant states are key sites of policy-making. The labor movement, even in its shrunken state, remains the most organized base on the left and a target of corporate funded groups like the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC). Politicians are thus turning to Right-to-Work one again, and they are succeeding in some unlikely places like Wisconsin, a state which pioneered the nation’s first workers’ compensation and public sector collective bargaining laws, and Michigan, the birthplace of the United Auto Workers and the industrial union movement. And this time the labor movement has few answers to the potent individual rights frame of Right-to-Work. No matter how carefully-crafted the labor response, few Republicans are coming around to the union position while the public is largely disinterested. 

The consequences are troubling. At a time of soaring income inequality and when average workers have yet to see the benefits of the economic recovery, these legislative efforts are bleeding out what is left the labor movement and one proven route to middle class life in the process. People can reasonably debate the merits of unions or how labor law should balance the interests of employers, employees and labor organizations. But the contemporary push for Right-to-Work, like its historical predecessors, doesn’t do this. Today it is being used to burnish the credentials of aspiring politicians on the right and as a blunt instrument to defund a political adversary. The well-being of employees has always been much further down the list.  

Dixon is an associate professor in the Department of Sociology at Dartmouth.