LIANE HANSEN, host:

The stalemate in Wisconsin and other Midwestern states between Republican governors and organized labor is about much more than pay, benefits and collective bargaining. Unions contend that their very existence is threatened by what is called right-to-work legislation - the laws make union membership optional for many workers.

Republican officials argue that limiting union strength not only helps keep government costs down, it helps create new jobs. NPR's David Schaper explores the accuracy of that statement.

(Soundbite of people chanting)

DAVID SCHAPER: Almost to a person, the tens of thousands of people who have been shouting and marching at the Wisconsin state capital for almost two weeks now believe the legislation being pushed by Republican Governor Scott Walker has less to do with saving money than breaking unions.

Mr. JOE NIGRO (National General Secretary-Treasurer, Sheet Metal Workers Union): I feel it's a total attack.

SCHAPER: Joe Nigro is the national general secretary-treasurer of the Sheet Metal Workers Union.

Mr. NIGRO: I see it as a national campaign.

SCHAPER: Nigro says every union in both the public and private sectors is under attack. He says while few are going as far and as fast as Walker is in taking on Wisconsin's unions, other Republican governors are preparing to follow Walker's lead.

In addition to eliminating many collective bargaining rights for most state and local government workers, Walker's bill could significantly weaken Wisconsin's public employee unions, because teachers, prison guards, nurses, social workers and other public employees would no longer be required to join their unions. They would vote each year on whether to keep their union and they would no longer have the union dues automatically deducted from their paychecks.

Governor SCOTT WALKER (Republican, Wisconsin): For some of our workers in the state, that's going to mean up to $1,000 that no longer is automatically forcibly taken out of their paycheck.

SCHAPER: Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker.

Mr. WALKER: That's real money. That's money that those households can use to help offset that pension contribution and the health care contribution. That's real money that helps the bottom line.

SCHAPER: Walker's legislation would essentially make Wisconsin a right-to-work state for public employees. Indiana is already a right-to-work state for public employees, and Republicans there tried this week to make it right-to-work for the private sector too. There are similar proposals in Ohio, Michigan and other industrial states that are losing manufacturing jobs.

Just as in Indiana, Republicans there are argued that limiting unions will help attract new factories and jobs. A Wall Street Journal analysis this week compared six upper Midwestern states with strong union protections with six Sunbelt right-to-work states. It showed greater job losses and slower wage growth over the last decade in the pro-union states than in the right-to-work states.

But some economists question that comparison, saying there are stark differences between the economies of the industrial North and the more rural South, where wages were lower to begin with.

Laura Dresser is a labor economist with the Center on Wisconsin Strategy.

Ms. LAURA DRESSER (Labor Economist, Center on Wisconsin Strategy): You know, I think the best rigorous research on the question of living standards in right-to-work versus non-right-to-work states shows a 3 percent wage loss for living in a right-to-work state; a wage penalty to being a place that doesn't have unions.

SCHAPER: As for bringing in new jobs, Dresser notes there have been some big employers choosing to locate in right-to-work states for their cheaper labor costs. Foreign carmakers, for example, have opened plants in Tupelo and Tuscaloosa, not in Flint and Toledo. But Dresser says most businesses look at more than just labor costs.

Ms. DRESSER: The broadest and strongest evidence suggest that employers are looking for good workers - that takes good schools; they're looking for good infrastructure - that takes money for roads and rails; they're looking for cities where they can have suppliers and relationships with other businesses, and all those things tend to happen in not right-to-work states.

SCHAPER: In addition, the most significant job growth over the past decade has been in high immigration states. Dresser says that includes both right-to-work states and strong union states, such as New York and California.

David Schaper, NPR News.

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