SPRINGFIELD – This month, Illinois found itself surrounded by right-to-work (RTW) states when Missouri's new Republican governor completed the encirclement by signing into law legislation that riled the state’s unions.

But just what this new development will mean for Illinois and its economy remains to be seen.

Born out of the Taft–Hartley amendments to the National Labor Relations Act, the right-to-work law allowed employees working for a unionized employer to opt out of paying union dues. Union officials contend that such an arrangement allows employees a “free ride” because the workers still garner some of the benefits of union representation at no cost to them. Proponents of RTW say such laws boost hiring and business growth.

In early February the Illinois Policy Institute released a report that dissected the plight of unions in Illinois and the surrounding area.

It found that since 2012, when the RTW movement began sweeping the region, Illinois lost 20,500 manufacturing jobs, while Indiana added 33,100, Michigan added 59,700, Wisconsin added 16,400, Kentucky added 16,800 and Missouri added 6,700.

Opponents of the law often claim that such a rule would undo the protection of union jobs in the state. The report by Illinois Policy, however, asserts that this fear may be unfounded.

“[In] 2016, union membership fell by 35,000 in Illinois, compared with increases of 21,000 in Indiana, 3,000 in Kentucky, and 32,000 in Missouri. Michigan’s union membership decreased by 15,000, and Wisconsin’s fell by 4,000 over the past year.”

As far as job creation, the report states that during the preceding year, Missouri experienced much better jobs growth rates, with 64,500 jobs being added, than Illinois, which witnessed a paltry 28,400 jobs added, by far the worst rating in the region according to the Illinois Policy Institute.

Robert Bruno, a professor at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign School of Labor and Employment Relations and the director of the school’s Labor Education Program, took a differing approach, saying he believed the impact of Missouri's move on Illinois would be negligible.

“Illinois has the fifth-largest state economy, and business decisions are not driven principally by a state’s labor relation’s law," Bruno said.

He contested the Illinois Policy Institute's findings, predicting earnings for Missouri workers would "decline."

To back this assertion, he pointed to the findings in a study of RTW from the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign and the University of Michigan in October 2013. This report argued RTW laws lower wages, reduce union membership, have an inconclusive effect on the economy, increase gender and racial inequality, reduce benefits while increasing workplace accidents and deaths, and have a negative impact on government budgets.

Bruno discounted claims employers prefer to locate in right-to-work states, noting "there was not a mass exodus of Illinois-based employers to the Badger state" when Wisconsin enacted right-to-work policies.

“Employers expand operations and choose sites for many reasons," Bruno said. 

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