Updated: July 2, 2014 6:22AM
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 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 a union 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 closed, as has the Butler Manufacturing factory. And a plant making Lawn-Boy lawn mowers shut down.
Galesburg hardly is unique. When I lived in Rock Island in the 1990s, I would 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, determines 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, which are right-to-work states. Their economies are chugging along quite nicely, much better than Illinois.
Consider these statistics compiled by the Illinois Policy Institute:
A net of roughly 5 million Americans moved to right-to-work states from those that are not 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 compared with 5.9 percent in non-right-to-work states between 2000 and 2010.
In 1970, 28.5 percent of Americans lived in right-to-work states, a percentage that rose to nearly 40 percent as of 2008.
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 Illinois has clung to an outdated model of compulsory unionism.
Many people who belong to unions would rather not be members. They are given little, if any, choice but to keep seeing a portion of their paychecks going to union dues.
Nowhere is that more evident than among government workers. When public employees in Wisconsin were given a choice on joining 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 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 the Illinois News Network, a project of the Illinois Policy
Institute. He can be reached at email@example.com