By James B. Kelleher
CHICAGO (Reuters) - Laws that weaken the power of organized labor could spread to more U.S. states in 2013 after supporters of the measures scored a major victory over unions in Michigan this week, and earlier in the year in Indiana, experts said.
The next battles over what advocates term "right-to-work" laws could be neighboring Midwest states of Wisconsin and Ohio, where Republican governors and legislatures have shown a willingness to take on the unions.
Missouri also could turn out to be the next flashpoint in efforts to end a "closed-shop" system that makes union membership a condition of employment.
Supporters say the new laws give workers the choice whether to join a union and pay dues. They also argue they encourage corporate investment. Critics say the laws undermine the basic tenet of union collective bargaining, suppress wages and strip workers of leverage to improve pay, benefits and conditions.
Michigan on Tuesday became the 24th of the 50 American states to enact such laws.
The outcome was a "catastrophe" for unions and a sign of their waning power, said Gary Chaison, industrial relations professor at Clark University's Graduate School of Management.
"Other states will be emboldened by the passage of the right-to-work law in Michigan," he said. "Before the next year is over, we will probably see a majority of states with right to work laws."
The outcome in Michigan struck organized labor particularly hard, because it is the birthplace of the United Auto Workers union and a symbol of union might. It followed a series of recent setbacks for the union movement from California to Wisconsin.
Before the Michigan eruption, Wisconsin was the epicenter of the debate over unions, but the issue was different. Republican Governor Scott Walker stripped public-sector unions of most of their bargaining power in 2011 but has not tried to enact right-to-work laws in the public or private sector there.
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"We will be pushing for a right-to-work bill here in Wisconsin," said Luke Hilgemann, the Wisconsin State Director for Americans for Prosperity. His group, linked to the billionaire Koch brothers, owners of an energy and trading conglomerate, was a significant force in getting the laws passed in Michigan.
After almost two years of acrimony with Wisconsin unions, Walker has avoided right-to-work in recent months and his office said the governor was focused on creating jobs, reforming government and improving infrastructure.
"Anything outside of that is a distraction," spokeswoman Jocelyn Webster said in an email earlier this week.
That statement is similar to words spoken by Michigan Republican Governor Rick Snyder just before he announced his support for right-to-work earlier this month.
Wisconsin State Assembly Democratic Leader Peter Barca, who has opposed such laws, said he is bracing for a new assault.
"We would be foolhardy... to not be skeptical and nervous," he said in an interview on Thursday.
Experts said the competitive balance among states affects corporate investment decisions and weakening unions is a factor.
"If it can happen in Michigan, it can clearly happen anywhere," said Mark Mix, the president of the National Right to Work Committee, a Virginia-based organization that has been battling unions since the 1950s.
Competition with Michigan could raise the pressure on neighboring Ohio, where Republican Governor John Kasich took on public-sector unions in 2011 and lost badly in a subsequent referendum.
The Ohio legislature has not seriously considered right-to-work, but a conservative group is collecting signatures there to put the issue to a referendum. The 1851 Center for Constitutional Law, a nonprofit legal center that litigates on behalf of free markets and limited government, said it has collected fewer than 100,000 of the 385,000 signatures required to get the referendum before voters.
"Ohio is going to have a lot of trouble keeping the businesses it has that are near those borders and also attracting new businesses anywhere near those borders," Maurice Thompson, executive director of The 1851 Center, told Reuters.
Kasich, who is up for re-election in 2014, is also keeping mum about right-to-work, although he said he supports a business-friendly investment environment.
In Missouri, a Senate bill early this year on unions failed to reach the floor for a vote and similar legislation was debated in 2011 for an hour before being set aside.
But Richard AuBuchon, a lobbyist and general counsel for the Missouri Chamber of Commerce, which supports right to work, said he is hopeful the measure will fare better in 2013. Missouri Democratic Governor Jay Nixon opposes right-to-work, but the November election gave Republicans veto-proof majorities in both chambers of the state legislature.
"There's national attention to this issue now," AuBuchon said. "You are seeing more focus on states trying to be more competitive in the national and global economies."
Until the flurry of action this year, the last state to adopt such a law was Oklahoma a decade ago.
(Additional reporting by Bernie Woodall in Michigan, Jo Ingles in Ohio, Kevin Murphy in Missouri, Susan Guyett in Indiana and Brendan O'Brien in Wisconsin; Editing by Greg McCune and David Brunnstrom)