MADISON, Wis. — For decades, states across the South, Great Plains and Rocky Mountains enacted policies that prevented organized labor from forcing all workers to pay union dues or fees. But the industrial Midwest resisted.
Those days are gone. After a wave of Republican victories across the region in 2010, Indiana and then Michigan enacted so-called right-to-work laws that supporters said strengthened those states economically, but that labor leaders asserted left behind a trail of weakened unions.
Now it is Wisconsin’s turn. On Monday, Gov. Scott Walker — who in 2011 succeeded in slashing collective bargaining rights for most public sector workers — signed a bill that makes his state the 25th to adopt the policy and has given new momentum to the business-led movement, its supporters say.
“This freedom-to-work legislation will give workers the freedom to choose whether or not they want to join a union, and employers another compelling reason to consider expanding or moving their business to Wisconsin,” Mr. Walker said.
Even before the Legislature passed the measure on Friday in a fast-track process, Mr. Walker’s political backers were raising money on the issue, saying of the bill in an email pitch to donors, “You know how it is: It threatens the power the Big Government Labor Bosses crave and they are going to come after him with everything they’ve got.”
Democrats assert that Mr. Walker’s real motivation is more about politics than job creation: breaking a dwindling union movement in Wisconsin and boosting his standing as the conservative choice for the Republican presidential nomination next year. And beyond Mr. Walker’s prospects, they say, the new laws throughout the region are intended to help Republicans build a favorable electoral map for 2016, by weakening the labor groups that have traditionally provided muscle and money to Democratic candidates in crucial swing states.
“It’s designed to depress wages and to help them win elections in the future,” Michael Sargeant, executive director of the Democratic Legislative Campaign Committee, said of passage of the measure, almost entirely on party lines, in Wisconsin. “That’s what this is about.”
President Obama issued a statement calling the measure “a new anti-worker law,” and criticizing Mr. Walker directly. “Wisconsin is a state built by labor, with a proud pro-worker past,” he said. "So even as its governor claims victory over working Americans, I’d encourage him to try and score a victory for working Americans — by taking meaningful action to raise their wages and offer them the security of paid leave."
Battles over union fees are also emerging in other states. Republican legislators in Missouri and New Mexico are weighing similar measures. In Kentucky, where a split Legislature and a Democratic governor pose obstacles to a statewide bill, leaders in more than a dozen counties have approved or are weighing measures, officials there said on Saturday, and efforts in six other counties are awaiting final approval.
And in Illinois, a long-held Democratic territory with Democratic supermajorities in the legislature, the new Republican governor, Bruce Rauner, announced an executive order barring state workers who opt out of unions from being forced to pay fees based on a constitutional argument, offering a new model for states where split partisan politics have slowed right-to-work policies.
Federal law already permits workers not to join unions. But these laws go further, permitting workers to not pay fees to them. Unions argue that the fees are fair for nonunion members who still benefit from the contracts they negotiate, and that without a requirement, their membership, financial support and very existence are threatened.
The effects of such measures are fiercely debated, with dueling experts and research papers.
In Michigan, the percentage of workers in unions has dropped to 14.5 percent from 16.6 percent before the changes. Yet in Indiana, the percentage of union members grew to 10.7 percent from 9.1 percent in 2012, a statistic some labor experts say shows how difficult it is to gauge the effects of such measures given other factors at play.
In Wisconsin, the percentage of workers in unions dropped to 11.7 percent in 2014 from 14.2 percent in 2010, before Mr. Walker took office.
Gov. Bruce Rauner of Illinois, a Republican, announced an executive order that bars state workers who opt out of unions from having to pay fees. Credit Seth Perlman/Associated Press Central to the new momentum behind the laws were sweeping Republican victories in state elections in 2010, when the party got full control — in the chambers and the governor’s office — of states that included Wisconsin, Michigan and Indiana. Republicans made more gains in 2014, now controlling 68 of the 98 chambers around the country and the most state legislative seats since 1920. But it was the victories in 2010 that set off a new flood of right-to-work legislation in the Midwest, which had rarely seen it.
Soon after taking office, Mr. Walker pressed for a bill that cut collective bargaining for most public sector workers and removed requirements that they pay fees if they chose not to join unions that represented them. Republicans elsewhere followed suit, but not all of those measures flew through. Ohio, where Republicans had taken sole control of state government, passed a measure limiting collective bargaining, but it was rejected months later in a statewide ballot measure.
Then, for right-to-work advocates, there came an even more memorable turning point: In November 2012, voters in Indiana (where a law was repealed in the 1960s) re-elected Republican legislative majorities even after labor leaders pledged to defeat them for passing a right-to-work law earlier in the year. On the same election night, voters in Michigan rejected a labor-backed ballot measure to enshrine collective bargaining rights in the State Constitution.
“The combination sent a clear message to elected officials in the region: You can end forced dues by passing right-to-work, and voters will reward you for it,” said Patrick Semmens, a spokesman for the National Right to Work Committee, who keeps a copy of The Indianapolis Star outside his office from the day after the law passed there.
A month after the 2012 election, the Republican-held Legislature in Michigan, a cradle of the American labor movement, passed a right-to-work measure, which was promptly signed by Gov. Rick Snyder, a Republican who had said the matter was not on his agenda.
Lee Saunders, the president of the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees, called it “a concerted effort by the folks who have a lot of wealth and power to get more wealth and power.”
“They’ve had these plans a long time, and now they’ve come to fruition,” he said.
In Madison, politics have been nearly impossible to separate from the debate over the policy in recent weeks. For many Democrats, the issue became an intense, highly partisan battle over Mr. Walker, his conservative policies since 2011, and his flirtation with a presidential bid.
“This is about crushing unions,” Representative Chris Taylor, a Democrat, said during an all-night debate last week. At another point, Robin Vos, the Republican House speaker, said Democrats suffered from “Walker derangement syndrome.”
In other states, where the debate is complicated by split partisan control, leaders were closely watching. In New Mexico, where a right-to-work measure passed through a newly Republican-held House last month, Democrats said they expected to see the measure vanish in a committee of the Senate, still held by Democrats. “This is all about breaking up unions,” said Sam Bregman, chairman of the New Mexico Democratic Party.
In Missouri, Republican lawmakers said they were concerned that they might be left behind by their Midwestern neighbors, given all that had changed. A measure that had stalled for several years passed the State House last month, and a Senate committee is expected to send it to the floor in a matter of weeks. Gov. Jay Nixon, a Democrat, has suggested a veto is likely, and Republicans say an override would be difficult.
“But when you see a Wisconsin, a Michigan, when they can get it done there,” said Senator Mike Parson, a Republican, “it’s pretty tough to sit here in Missouri with the makeup of things here and we can’t get it done?”