(Bloomberg) — A smiling Republican Governor Scott Walker
posed for television cameras Monday, holding up the bill he’d
just signed making Wisconsin the nation’s 25th right-to-work
state and declaring it a “powerful message” of economic
development.

While the bill may buoy a presidential campaign by Walker,
it might not be a economic panacea for Wisconsin. Nearby
Michigan and Indiana, which in 2012 adopted similar laws, have
yet to see payoffs directly attributed to employees’ new freedom
to escape union dues and membership. Economic gains, such as a
sharp drop in unemployment, can be linked to the national
recovery, economists say, and right-to-work laws are largely
symbolic.

“It would be an exaggeration to point to a specific
fraction of an unemployment rate change that is due to right-to-work,” said Patrick Anderson, founder and chief executive
officer of the Anderson Economic Group consultancy in East
Lansing Michigan.

The effort to add to the roster of right-to-work states in
the South and West has gained momentum since Republicans took
over a majority of legislatures and governors’ offices in the
2010 election, and strengthened their hold in subsequent years.
The three latest entries are industrial heartland states that
generations ago fostered powerful unions.

Indefinite Effects

Indiana has seen its jobless rate drop to 5.8 percent in
December, from 8.3 percent when then-Governor Mitch Daniels
signed the union bill in February 2012. Yet neighboring
Illinois, which isn’t a right-to-work state, saw its
unemployment drop by to 6.2 percent from 8.9 percent in the same
period.

“It’s really hard to isolate the effects of it,” said
Mike Hicks, an economist at Ball State University in Muncie who
has charted the law’s impact. “Right-to-work alone isn’t
responsible for the vast majority of employment growth or wage
drops.”

That’s not stopping states, and even municipalities, from
forging ahead.

In Kentucky, counties are trying to bypass opposition in
the legislature by enacting their own right-to-work ordinances
in what has become a legal fight about local-government
authority. Warren, home of the General Motors Co. assembly plant
in Bowling Green that makes the Corvette, and nine other
counties have passed right-to-work ordinances, said Brent Yessin
of Protect My Check, a nonprofit promoting local action.

The United Autoworkers and eight other unions sued in
federal court in January to block the ordinance passed in Hardin
County, saying only states and U.S. territories can adopt right-to-work status. The county disagrees and says Kentucky’s home-rule law lets it act.

The Republican-controlled Missouri House of Representatives
approved a right-to-work bill last month. A coalition of unions
protested during the weekend in Charleston as West Virginia’s
legislature considers a bill. And Illinois Republican Governor
Bruce Rauner is pushing to give voters authority to create
right-to-work zones at the local level.

Dwindling Unions

Those moves come as national union membership continues to
slide, to 11.1 percent in 2014, down from 20.1 percent in 1983,
according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics.

“The rise of the middle class in America coincided in large
part with the rise of unions,” President Barack Obama said in a
statement Monday night in which he criticized the Wisconsin bill.
“It’s inexcusable that, over the past several years, just when
middle-class families and workers need that kind of security the
most, there’s been a sustained, coordinated assault.”

Wisconsin Democrats say the effort is about politics, not
economics. Unions have typically been major suppliers of money
and manpower for the party’s candidates.

“The governor is attempting to position himself as a Tea
Party favorite in the Republican presidential primary,” said
Democratic Representative Gary Hebl.

Shortly after signing the bill, the Friends of Scott Walker
campaign sent out an e-mail asking for contributions of “$10 or
$100 or $1,000” to fight “Big Government Labor Bosses.”

Republicans insisted that the motivation for the measure
wasn’t to help Walker but to give workers choice and boost the
economy. Proponents say right-to-work makes a difference to
businesses and corporate officers deciding where to locate or
expand operations, and that states without that statutes can be
ruled out.

“We expect to see an immediate economic benefit,”
Representative Daniel Knodl, an assistant Republican leader,
said during a March 5 news conference in Madison, the day before
the measure passed.

Just as politics divides right-to-work supporters and
opponents, there are disagreements over the economic impact.
Anderson said that, in Michigan, right-to-work’s impact is
largely symbolic, helping the state’s image along with the
revival of the domestic auto industry and Detroit’s emergence
from bankruptcy.

“No one in the manufacturing world was unaware of the
lengthy and powerful influence of organized labor in Michigan,”
Anderson said.

“Now the state can compete for some of the manufacturing
expansion in the way that it really couldn’t in the past,”
Anderson said. “That will take time.”

Maybe a long time, said Robert Bruno, a Chicago-based
assistant professor of labor and industrial relations at the
University of Illinois.

“This really is fool’s gold,” Bruno said. “There’s a
multitude of business incentives and drivers that are the
principal causes of economic development, and right-to-work
doesn’t move the needle much.”

To contact the reporters on this story:
Tim Jones in Chicago at
tjones58@bloomberg.net;
Mark Niquette in Columbus at
mniquette@bloomberg.net;
John McCormick in Brown Deer, Wisconsin at
jmccormick16@bloomberg.net

To contact the editors responsible for this story:
Stephen Merelman at
smerelman@bloomberg.net
Mark Schoifet