A Marquette University economist is warning against reading too much into economic predictions about proposed “right-to-work” legislation that might make an appearance when Wisconsin's Legislature reconvenes next month.
Such a measure would limit employers’ abilities to require employees to pay union dues.
Debate has heated up in the past week, after Republican state Rep. Chris Kapenga promised he would introduce a right-to-work bill and lead an effort to get it passed in the Assembly. Kapenga said such a bill would be good for the state economy, pointing to data from a conservative Michigan policy center that showed right-to-work states adding more jobs between 2001 and 2011 than states without such provisions.
Meanwhile, state Democrats have argued — and the liberal Economic Policy Institute has data to suggest — that right-to-work legislation would actually lower wages.
But, Abdur Chowdry, chair of economics at Marquette University, said the data on either side wasn’t convincing enough to argue for or against right-to-work policies.
“There are numerous studies that have been done on right-to-work law and the results vary from one extreme or another,” he said. “Depending on your position, you can provide evidence of a specific study supporting what you are standing for.”
It's extremely difficult to isolate the economic impact of right-to-work laws, Chowdry said.
So, when lawmakers try to argue that it will help or hurt the state economy, he said it’s right to be skeptical.
"There are so many factors that influence whether new businesses come to the state, or whether income would increase or employment would increase,” he said.
For example, he said businesses are much more likely to look at a state’s regulatory environment, tax incentives and even the physical infrastructure of supporting utilities.
One thing that Chowdry said could be concluded “across the board,” however, was that right-to-work states have weaker unions — and also that workers tend to have worse health care and pension benefits.
Chowdry said state lawmakers would find better solutions for the economy elsewhere in diversifying the manufacturing base or helping train workers to be able to do the jobs that are available now.
“The skills that the businesses are looking for are not the ones the workers have,” he said.
Wisconsin could also learn from Iowa’s example, he said. That state made massive improvements to their information infrastructure, and in so doing has experienced a boom in new businesses in the last few years.
But ultimately, Chowdry said right-to-work is the wrong issue to be fighting over for people who are interested in fixing the economy.
“This would not have any significant impact on the employment picture or the overall economy,” he said. “There are other priorities we should be looking at that would have a much bigger impact on the economy.
“It would be an unnecessary distraction.”