CHICAGO (CBS) — A couple University of Illinois researchers have criticized Gov. Bruce Rauner’s push to allow communities to vote for “right-to-work zones,” saying such a move could weaken their local economies.

On Tuesday, Rauner said one of his priorities in his first year in office is to create what he dubbed “employee empowerment zones,” by allowing local communities to vote whether workers must join a union or pay dues as a condition of employment, even in workplaces that are unionized.

Dr. Robert Bruno, professor of labor and employment relations at the University of Illinois, said studies have shown the promises of job growth under so-called “right-to-work” laws are “nebulous.”

“There is this appealing idea that, if you simply lower the cost for an employer, there’ll be this large increase in employment. Quite frankly, the studies don’t suggest that,” Bruno said.

Rauner insisted he wasn’t pushing for a statewide law like GOP-backed statutes fiercely opposed by Democrats in other states. But he said some communities in union-friendly Illinois could benefit from the flexibility to attract businesses.

“The states that are already growing don’t force unionization into their economy,” Rauner told an audience at Richland Community College in Decatur, a city he said could benefit from such a plan. “I’m not advocating Illinois becoming a right-to-work state, but I do advocate (for) local governments being allowed to decide whether they’re right-to-work zones.”

However, Bruno said those who do have jobs under a “right-to-work” system typically are paid less, and that hurts the economy.

“There is a significant loss in income to the state – in the billions of dollars – as a result of right-to-work laws lowering wages,” he said. “Of course, when those workers, those citizens, have less money to spend, then it becomes a drag on the overall economy.

Bruno said “right-to-work” laws also make people more reliant on services from the government, which has less money, because workers are paying lower income taxes.

Emily Twarog, an assistant professor of labor and employment relations at the U of I, said the evidence is clear from studies the university has done that “right-to-work” laws are not beneficial to workers.

“There’s really been no evidence in any other state where there’s right-to-work that demonstrates that right-to-work is beneficial to workers,” she said.

Bruno said “right-to-work” laws are good at weakening labor unions, and their ability to negotiate better wages and benefits for workers, as such laws lead to lower unionization rates.

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