Referencing the 3 percent decline in wages, Lafer said right-to-work laws tend to backfire on states by lowering living standards—and in addition to lower wages, people in right-to-work states are less likely to have employer-provided health care. That is a particular problem for small-business owners, who tend to be rooted in their communities. In a right-to-work state, their customer base has less disposable income. "When you do anything that lowers wages, that's a problem for these companies," Lafer said.
Lafer and other right-to-work opponents argue that states that adopt the laws in hopes of boosting their economy are being shortsighted. "It may benefit employers not to negotiate with employees and to pay less, but that's different from saying this is going to help a state's economic development," he said.
Businesses, of course, are more concerned with their own development than with public policy, which may help explain why roughly two-thirds of the members of CNBC's Global CFO Council responding to a recent survey said right-to-work laws were "important" or "very important" in their firms' decisions about where to locate or expand.
Before Wisconsin, the last two states to adopt right-to-work laws were Indiana and Michigan, in 2012 and 2013. Previous to that was Oklahoma, in 2001.
The National Right to Work Committee and AFL-CIO agree on one thing: The workplace war has escalated and will continue—they just don't agree on which way it will tip.
"There's no question that passage of the Wisconsin right-to-work law is putting pressure on the 25 other states to ensure that no worker can be fired for refusing to pay union dues," said a spokesman for the National Right to Work Committee in a statement.
Peggy Shorey, an AFL-CIO director and its state government affairs and deputy director of government relations, said, "Since 2011, there has been a concerted and growing legislative effort by extreme politicians, financed by corporate billionaires, to attack workers. Deceptive right-to-work legislation is wrong for America's working families—and over the past few years, workers have successfully fended off many of these attacks on our freedoms, wages and safety."