Last year, the 250 members of Sheet Metal Workers Local 20 in South Bend, Indiana, fought proposed "right-to-work" legislation as if they were fighting for their lives. They feared for their future after the measure became law in February.
Right-to-work laws, now in place in 24 states after Michigan passed one in December, make it illegal to require workers to pay fees to unions as a condition of their employment. The laws can cripple union finances, infrastructure and bargaining clout with employers if too many of the people represented by the bargaining unit decide to stop paying dues and become what the unions call "free riders." Under federal law, unions are required to provide many of the same services to people who choose not to pay as they do to dues-paying members. They are required to represent them in employment disputes.