News From Terre Haute, Indiana

January 16, 2012

MAUREEN HAYDEN: Let’s be clear on right-to-work’s effects, if that’s even possible

Maureen Hayden
CNHI Statehouse Bureau

INDIANAPOLIS — Ball State University economist Michael Hicks describes himself as a fiscal conservative and admirer of much of what Republican Gov. Mitch Daniels has done in his seven years in office.

But last week, Hicks released a research study that isn’t going over well with Daniels’ allies in the Statehouse pushing a contentious piece of legislation known as the right-to-work bill.

That’s the legislation that makes it a crime for employers and labor unions to enter into “closed shop” agreements that make membership or payment of union dues or fees a condition of employment.

It’s also the legislation that’s been sucking up all the oxygen in the Statehouse for the last two weeks. Backed by Republicans and the Indiana Chamber of Commerce, it’s bitterly opposed by Democrats and the labor unions.

Here’s what Hicks and his colleagues at BSU’s Center for Business and Economic Research found: the claims of bill supporters that a right-to-work law is a significant and long-term job creator isn’t based in reality.

Bill opponents have been arguing that for a while, but Hicks isn’t on their side either. He’s not particularly sympathetic to the current-day practices of labor unions, who contend the bill would cause their demise. (Hicks credits unions for creating the 40-hour work week, but thinks they’ve contributed to their own demise.)

Hicks is on the side of research. And his research on right-to-work rules that have been enacted in states across the U.S. show extremely mixed results on how they impacted the growth or demise of much-coveted manufacturing jobs.

Hicks acknowledges there are studies that show the long-term rise of good-paying manufacturing jobs in some right-to-work states.

But many of those right-to-work laws were enacted in Southern states in the 1940s and 1950s. Hicks said those laws coincided with the advent of air-conditioning in the workplace.

Why does that matter? Because it meant the sweltering summers of the Deep South that had once withered the enthusiasm of industries to locate there were rendered neutral as a negative factor to manufacturers.

“If you look at the right-to-work states in the South, you could argue their right-to-work laws had less impact on job growth than air-conditioning,” Hicks said.

He’s not arguing that. What he is arguing for is a little more truth in politics.

He said that more diplomatically last week when he asked that his research findings not be interpreted as an endorsement of either side of the fight.

“Right-to-work legislation is a politically tactile subject that has far-reaching considerations and motivations,” Hicks said then. “Just as we found in recent weeks in the Indiana legislature, whatever preconceived notion a group brings to the discussion, they are able to find a supportive theory.”

You can read Hicks’ report, “Right-to-Work Legislation and the Manufacturing Sector,” on Ball State’s website at cms.bsu.edu.

Maureen Hayden is the Indiana Statehouse bureau chief for CNHI, the parent company of the Tribune-Star. She can be reached at maureen.hayden@indianamediagroup.com