SOUTHERN INDIANA — Despite becoming a right-to-work state, union memberships rose by about 50,000 in Indiana from 2013 to 2014, a study released last week by the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics showed.
But opponents of the law still believe the true impact of the legislation can’t yet be measured.
The right-to-work bill was approved by the General Assembly in 2012 and upheld by the Indiana Supreme Court in November.
According to the BLS study, 10.3 percent of Indiana’s work force, or about 275,000 workers, were represented by a labor union in 2013. There were about 249,000 employees who were paying members of unions that year.
Last year, 12 percent of the Hoosier work force, or about 335,000 employees, were represented by a union. The number of union members also increased to about 299,000.
“The latest data show that union membership has increased to 299,000, just shy of the level that existed prior to the passage of right-to-work,” said Uric Dufrene, a professor of finance at Indiana University Southeast.
“I think the interesting observation here is that right-to-work has not resulted in a significant reduction in union memberships in Indiana.”
In 2011, 302,000 Hoosier workers belonged to unions, or about 11.3 percent of those employed.
Dufrene credited the recent increase in part to an improved economy.
There were also a number of sizable public projects such as the construction of Lucas Oil Stadium and Interstate 69 additions that created more union jobs in recent years, said Jeff Harris, communications director for the Indiana State AFL-CIO.
The organization affiliates with most of the top domestic and international trade unions that are active in Indiana.
While the numbers show more people are choosing unions, there’s still a concern that workers will elect to not pay dues, Harris said.
“I think there would be some people over time who would say why should I pay for something I can get for free,” he said.
Right-to-work laws restrict unions from collecting membership fees as a condition of employment under most circumstances. The bill drew a clash of primarily union workers and Democratic lawmakers against Republican legislators and business owners before ultimately passing the Statehouse.
Unions have also spread into other professions and industries in recent years which has helped grow the bargaining base, Harris added.
“I think there are more people from different industries looking to join unions now because they are dealing with economic inequality,” he said.
Workers are struggling to receive fair wages and adequate benefits, so they realize they need to organize to demand better salaries, medical coverage and working conditions, Harris continued.
The only right-to-work state bordering Indiana is Michigan, which also passed the legislation in 2012. Unlike Indiana, Michigan saw a dip in union membership and representation from 2013 to 2014.
According to the BLS study, the number of union workers in Michigan dropped by about 48,000, or about 1.8 percent from 2013 to 2014.