Why Is Indiana’s ‘Right to Work’ Law Such a Big Deal?

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Michael Conroy / AP

Union protestors gather outside the Statehouse after the Senate voted to pass the right-to-work bill in Indianapolis, Wednesday, Feb. 1, 2012. The legislation prohibits labor contracts requiring workers to pay union representation fees.

You may have heard: Indiana governor Mitch Daniels signed “Right to Work” legislation into law on Wednesday, making his state the 23rd in the nation to adopt the collective bargaining rules, and the first in America’s Rust Belt. So, uh, what does that mean exactly?

Essentially, Right to Work outlaws mandatory union membership. Employers cannot make joining a union or paying dues to one conditional to employment at their company, which is a common arrangement between employers and unions in non-Right-to-Work states.

Created by the 1947 Taft-Hartley Act, the power to prohibit these mandates is exclusive to states. There is currently no federal equivalent of the law, and city and county governments are forbidden from passing Right to Work rules on their own.

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Conservatives generally favor Right to Work laws — personal freedoms and all that — while unions and their Democratic allies generally oppose them; they contend that it creates a free-rider problem where employees can reap the benefits of working at a unionized company without paying dues. (It also restricts the political and financial power of organized labor.)

But the starkest divide between Right to Workers and their opponents is geographical. Right to Work states are clustered in the Southeast, covering every state from Virginia down to Florida and west to Texas, before snaking north through the Great Plains up to the Dakotas and trickling into the Rockies. The West Coast and Midwest-to-Northeast Rust Belt,  both traditional union redoubts, have remained untouched by Right to Work, and no state has added such a law in more than a decade. That is until Daniels signed Indiana’s Right to Work bill on Wednesday. And that’s why it’s a big deal.

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