By Tom Still

MADISON – If you ask the typical technology company
executive or worker what they think about “right-to-work” laws, which say
workers cannot be forced to join a union shop and pay dues as a condition of
employment, you may get a blank stare for an answer.

That’s because the fast-growing technology industry, from
the life sciences to information technology, has never been unionized and
likely never will become so.

Not that techies are necessarily anti-union or pro-union…
their personal beliefs vary. For the vast majority of them, however, union
shops are simply not aligned with the creative worlds in which they live and
work.

That’s a factor the Wisconsin Legislature may bear in mind
as it considers making Wisconsin the nation’s 25th “right-to-work”
state, and why Gov. Scott Walker is right to suggest efforts to pass such a law
“would be a distraction from the work that we’re trying to do.”

Membership in unions – especially those representing private
workers – has been declining in percentage terms since the 1950s, when 35
percent of the nation’s workforce carried a union card. Today, that percentage
is about 11.3 percent, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics. The
decline has been even more precipitous if you consider only unionized private
workers, who now make up just 6.7 percent of the workforce. The overall U.S.
rate is higher because about 35 percent of all public employees are unionized,
mainly at the state and local levels.

Walker and the Legislature already fought – and won – the
public employee battle with the 2011 passage of Act 10, which effectively ended
collective bargaining for many public workers. Is the latest proposal to pass a
“right-to-work” law simply an effort to shoot the wounded?

Perhaps, except for the fact the wounded have already shot
themselves when it comes to the high-growth tech sector.

Unionization rates in U.S. industries such as information
services, financial services, computer sciences, mathematics, biotechnology,
arts and design are notoriously low – usually in the 2 to 4 percent range. None
of the Internet giants of the Silicon Valley or beyond have unionized
employees. The same holds true for most of Wisconsin’s larger tech companies.
And yet, those companies are often rated by their own employees as outstanding
places to work.

The reasons for tech’s low union rates have to do with the
nature of tech companies, which are by nature innovative and determined to
create new markets while disrupting what came before. The people who work in
those settings value innovation far more than laws that protect workers’ jobs,
because most of them know they can be fired in a heartbeat if their company
fails to attract enough capital or market a winning product.

In their book, “The Rise and Fall of U.S. Unions,” authors
Emin Dinlersoz and Jeremy Greenwood summed it up when they wrote:
“Technological innovation gave life to the American union. Then technological
innovation killed the American union.”

The industrial revolution and its “man-versus-machine”
climate spurred the need for unions in the 19th and 20th
centuries, while the rise of the Internet and “man-leveraging-machine” reversed
the trend. Today’s technology has sharpened the need for more educated workers
who can adapt to ever-changing jobs, versus protecting a single job that may
last a lifetime.

Supporters of right-to-work laws say they can boost a
state’s economy by making wages and salaries more competitive, thus making it
easier to attract and retain certain types of jobs. If only high wages were a
problem in Wisconsin, that might be so. Wisconsin lags in per capita income
pretty much across the board. The goal should be creating more high-wage jobs –
not chasing those that pay less.

Most of the existing right-to-work states are in the South,
the Great Plains and the Rocky Mountain regions. About a half-dozen of those
states boast strong tech-based sectors, but most economists agree that
right-to-work laws are small contributors, at best, even in those states. It’s
usually a mix of workforce, tax, regulatory, infrastructure and other factors
that drive state economies forward.

In Wisconsin as elsewhere in the United States, private
union membership is on the wane. Passing a right-to-work law may speed that
trend, but there are other strategies more likely to help Wisconsin on the
higher end of the job and wage scale.