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Right-to-Work Works Its Magic in Idaho: State Ranks 49th in Income per Capita

 Darin OswaldAn article in Friday’s Idaho Statesman detailed the struggles unions have had in the state since the passage of “Right-to-Work” in 1985. Between 1985 and 2012, AFL-CIO membership in the state dropped from 41,300 to 11,000. Currently 29,000 Idahoans are members of unions, though 7,000 of those members choose not to pay dues.

A brief history of “Right-to-Work” in Idaho comes from Statesman writer Zach Kyle:

Union membership in Idaho began declining in the mid-1980s with the passage of Right to Work. Idaho became the 20th state to outlaw union shops, which required all workers to pay dues as a condition of employment. That was the case at the mill where Van Leuven started his career.

Voters affirmed the law, 54 percent to 46 percent, after Democratic Gov. John Evans’ veto. Unions never recovered, said Martin Orr, chairman of the Boise State University Department of Sociology.
“It’s really union-busting legislation,” Orr said. “The express purpose was not to increase employment, but rather to weaken unions and put pressure on wages and benefits. Idaho has been a tough environment for unions for some time.”

Mark Briggs, 57, principal officer of International Brotherhood of Teamsters Local 483 in Boise, signed his first union card at age 12. His local office has about 700 Teamsters, down from 900 before the Great Recession and from at least 4,000 before Right to Work, he said.

Unions for bricklayers, glazers, cement mixers and other trades have left Boise to merge into offices in Montana and Utah, he said.

“Right to Work has worked,” Briggs said. “If you go into our Labor Center building in Boise, there used to be bricklayers, cement mixers, glazers. None of those are in the building anymore. It’s been hard.”

But there is a glimmer of hope. At a recent conference, the Idaho AFL-CIO celebrated some growth, saying they’d achieved a “foothold” that may help them back into the political conversation. With the state ranking 49th in per-capita income, the promise of better wages through collective bargaining could be the idea that helps unions build momentum in terms of public opinion in Idaho. International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers (IBEW) Local 291 Business Manager  Mark Zaleski spoke to the Statesman about how the great recession could open the door for change:

“The time couldn’t be better,” Zaleski said. “People are finally starting to understand you don’t have to work for the same boss who said he has to cut your insurance or your wages. People are getting tired of that.”

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