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Early last month, Michigan — a longtime autoworkers union stronghold — became the 24th Right-to-Work state, joining what some say is a trend by many Midwestern states that may eventually wear away at Virginia’s edge in attracting corporations.

According to the Springfield-based National Right To Work Legal Defense Foundation, Right to Work laws, which vary somewhat in each state, generally secure the rights of employees to decide for themselves whether or not to join or financially support unions. They often — as in Virginia — severely limit, or disallow collective bargaining rights.

According to Right To Work spokesman Anthony Riedel, in addition to Michigan, Indiana also became a Right-to Work state in 2012.

“New Hampshire, Missouri, Pennsylvania, Montana, Alaska and Kentucky are all also considering or pursuing it,” he said.

If only two of those six states are successful, it will set a precedent in the U.S., in which the majority of states will be Right-to-Work states for the first time in history.

According to David Burton, chairman of labor and employment section of Richmond law firm Williams Mullen, the economy is forcing states to reconsider the extra costs to industry incurred by national and regional unions.

“In their heyday in the 1950s, union-represented workers comprised about 20 percent of the U.S. workforce,” he said. “Today, depending on who you ask, it is less than half that, which means many unions’ bargaining powers have also been diminished by half.”

According to Riedel, currently only 6.9 percent of the U.S. private sector remains unionized.

“After some union workers discovered their mandatory dues were being used for political purposes, awareness increased,” he said. “Right now a lot more people are becoming engaged in the Right-to-Work issue and it has solid Republican backing.”

That fact has caused some unrest in Michigan.

“It’s unfortunate that the hardworking people of Michigan are becoming the collateral damage of Republicans’ political vendetta against unions and their members. Right to work sounds like a good idea, but in reality, these laws have nothing to do with providing rights or work,” said American Rights at Work Executive Director Sarita Gupta. “The facts speak for themselves: compared to workers living in states without right-to-work laws, employees in right-to-work states earn less per year and are more likely to be uninsured. Workplace deaths are higher in right-to-work states, and even business owners admit that right to work isn’t a factor when they’re choosing where to open up shop.”

Virginia has been a Right-to-Work state since 1947, a status that has made it an early and effective leader in attracting industry to the Mid-Atlantic region.

“That is a quality Virginia has enjoyed for quite some time,” said Gerald L. Gordon, president and chief executive officer of the Economic Development Authority in Fairfax County. “Many corporations are finding that the costs incurred by unions are just simply no longer affordable.”

But now that so many other states are considering becoming Right-to-Work states, Virginia’s economic competitiveness could be impacted in terms of attracting industry.

“Midwest states like Michigan, Indiana and Ohio have something Virginia does not,” said Burton. “They have an educational infrastructure in their community colleges that is geared toward manufacturing and a populace already equipped with manufacturing skill sets.”

But Gordon argues that Virginia will continue to maintain its competitive edge.

“Virginia has been one of the more aggressive economic development states for a very long time,” he said. “Being a Right-to-Work state is not our only asset. But in terms of manufacturing specifically, what I see is the manufacturing industry approaching intersections with information technology and automation.”

Gordon added that Virginia, specifically northern Virginia, also has a remarkable information-technology base.

“I recently was in an Audi automobile plant in Germany. It was three-football fields long with very few people in it, just one robotic machine after another,” Gordon said. “A few human beings were operating some computerized machines, but it was very few. No human hands were ever on the cars. The future of manufacturing is this type of advanced manufacturing, which is less and less dependent on the type of people who are union members, and more and more dependent on the type of people who you might find doing research at Virginia Tech.”

gmacdonald@fairfaxtimes.com