Forget the divisive abortion and gay marriage debates that came later: The 1985 campaign that made Idaho the 21st Right to Work state was easily the bitterest in our history.
Over the veto of then-Gov. John Evans, the Legislature voted to outlaw “union shops,” where workers are obliged to pay dues as a condition of employment.
Twenty months later, a majority of Idaho voters — 54 percent — approved the change.
Idaho’s labor unions fought Right to Work as if their lives depended on it, and in many ways they did. And 27-year-old Gary Glenn, a firebrand conservative activist who ran the Right to Work campaign, took no prisoners.
“The tactics on both sides were equally despicable,” former Idaho Association of Commerce and Industry Executive Director Steve Ahrens told the Idaho Statesman. “They ranged from scurrilous to reprehensible.“
But what’s been the economic impact of 25 years of Right to Work?
Depends on whom you ask. For starters, union membership has shrunk from 12 percent of the Idaho workforce in 1985 to 6 percent today. Partly as a consequence, Idaho wages have declined from 84 percent of the national average in 1985 to 75 percent before the beginning of the Great Recession.
But it would be naïve to suggest that Right to Work wasn’t a major factor in Idaho’s explosive job growth from 1986 through 2008.
Start-ups, small businesses and tech — enterprises that sort badly with union rules — thrived. Equally important, Right to Work served to stabilize the labor market.
And companies like Dell simply wouldn’t have come to Idaho if they had to deal with union shops.
Still, as much as any other single factor, Right to Work began the polarization of Idaho politics that has left us with a process that is at times dysfunctional. It weakened Democrats and Republican moderates in the long run, and left conservatives in power who can’t always see eye to eye.
But it’s a stretch to say that Right to Work in itself gutted organized labor in Idaho. Economic change — the decline of traditional Idaho industries like timber, rail and mining — was more responsible.
Jim Kerns, the president of the Idaho AFL-CIO during the Right to Work campaign, told the Statesman that Right to Work means no strike is going to be successful in Idaho. The may be true, but organized labor isn’t exactly dead.
Nobody — including the conservatives in the Legislature — makes a serious decision about public schools without consulting the Idaho Education Association. Merit pay for teachers — an idea that Republican Superintendent of Public Instruction Tom Luna strongly endorses and of which the IEA is skeptical — won’t happen without the teachers union’s buy-in.
And there are pockets of strength among public employee unions, such as the Boise police and the Twin Falls firefighters.
So is the state as a whole better for Right to Work? A qualified yes.
In the past quarter century, Idaho has earned a reputation as a good place to do business. And as difficult as the state’s current economic recovery is, it would be slower with a significant number of unionized workplaces.
Still, some toxic residue of the Right to Work debate lingers. Its passage emboldened Republican conservatives to the point where they feel they can make Idaho’s important decisions heedless of Democrats and GOP moderates.
Phil Batt leveraged the success of Right to Work to return the Idaho Republican Party to dominance. But he was the last governor who deemed it his moral responsibility to pay more than lip service to those with whom he disagreed politically.
Idaho crossed a watershed with Right to Work. It’s not the same state it was before 1985, and never will be again.
That’s good. And sometimes, not so good.