In 2016, West Virginia became the 26th state to pass a right-to-work law, marking the first time more than half of all U.S. states had such a law on their books.
With a stroke of Kentucky Gov. Matt Bevin's pen, 2017 became the year in which the majority of Americans -- by population -- now live in right-to-work states.
It's a major reversal from the once-iron grip labor unions had on both U.S. workers and the politicians they helped to elect, but with Republicans making major gains in state legislatures and governorships -- in addition to victories at the federal level -- right-to-work advocates have a clear path to push for the reforms they favor.
Right-to-work laws are usually straightforward -- they give employees the right to keep their jobs without paying dues or being part of labor unions. In other words, labor unions in right-to-work states can no longer compel workers to become union members, nor can they penalize them for opting out of union membership.
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Although unions have traditionally enjoyed political power in the U.S. and have influenced elections with their endorsements, more states are breaking away from forced union membership as advocates for right-to-work argue that unions harm state economies and force members to support political causes they don't agree with.
"With passage of right-to-work, Kentuckians can expect solid economic improvement," the editorial board of Kentucky's News Democrat-Leader wrote in an op-ed posted Jan. 9.
Kentucky residents who supported the hard-fought legislation pointed to Indiana and Michigan, where average wages increased after those states passed right-to-work laws and outpaced states that did not have right-to-work laws on the books.
The new year "has the makings of a historic year for the fight against forced unionism," Patrick Semmens, spokesman for the National Right to Work Committee, told the Washington Examiner. "We're not counting any chickens before they hatch, but certainly three new right-to-work states in 2017 is a realistic possibility."
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One of those states will likely be Missouri, where then-Gov. Jay Nixon vetoed a right-to-work bill in 2015. But Eric Greitens, the state's newly-elected Republican governor, has said he supports right-to-work laws, the Examiner reported, and opposition to such a bill would be limited because Republicans control the state legislature.
Likewise, New Hampshire Gov. Chris Sununu, a newly elected Republican, says he's looking to work with his state's legislature to pass a right-to-work bill.
“We are going to give employees once and for all the flexibility they deserve in the workforce by passing right-to-work,” Sununu said, according to New Hampshire's WMUR. “Let’s tell these companies that New Hampshire is open for business.”
Not everyone supports right-to-work legislation. The American Federation of Labor and Congress of Industrial Organizations (AFL-CIO) -- a labor umbrella group -- argues that states with right-to-work laws have higher rates of poverty, more workplace fatalities, and lower rates of insurance coverage.
Right-to-work "directly limits the financial viability of unions, reducing their strength and ability to negotiate favorable contracts, higher wages, and better benefits," says the Economic Policy Institute, a labor-affiliated Washington think tank.