“Right to work” has a nice feel-good ring, but that obscures what it means in practice.The basic thing to realize is that right to work is not about worker freedom, competitive business climates, fairness or any other lofty claims. It is really about limiting workers’ collective voices and driving down wages; in other words, it ultimately hurts the middle class.
Right-to-work laws date back to the 1947 Taft-Hartley amendments to the National Labor Relations Act. Taft-Hartley allowed states to make it illegal for unions and employers to bargain agreements that required all workers represented by a union to pay dues. Since then, 23 states (including Indiana last year) have passed such laws. However, that doesn’t release the union from its legal requirement to represent all workers, whether they pay dues or not.
There is plenty of disagreement on the impact of right-to-work legislation on a state’s economy. (More on that shortly.) But one clear result is that such laws lead to lower rates of unionization. With a weaker collective voice, it becomes that much harder for workers to bargain effectively and bring more balance to labor-management relations that are already stacked against them.
One Minnesota union used the analogy of a “right-to-work-out” law to explain how ridiculous this is: Such a law, it noted, would prevent health clubs from forcing people to pay dues or membership fees to use the equipment, services and facilities. Gyms and health clubs would have to admit everybody, even those who never paid a cent. In other words, “right-to-work-out” laws would allow everybody to get all the benefits of health club membership absolutely free! How cool is that?
No evidence for ‘right to work’
Aside from the inherent unfairness of right-to-work laws, there’s ample research on how bad they are for workers and the broader economy. To site just a few examples: Workers in right-to-work states earn about $1,500 less per year than workers in other states; they are less likely to be covered by employer-sponsored health insurance or pensions; and their workplaces have higher rates of death and injury. For every $1 million decline in workers’ wages, six jobs are lost, according to research from the Economic Policy Institute.
In a report done for EPI, economist Gordon Lafer wrote: “In Indiana and elsewhere, large sums of money have been devoted to backing RTW bills, with lobbyists claiming that RTW significantly improves both the number of jobs in a state and the wages people earn because companies that had avoided the state will flock there. The evidence shows that these claims are completely without scientific foundation.” Other recent studies reach the same conclusion.
Research by Lafer and Sylvia Allegretto about Oklahoma, which in 2001 became the first state in 25 years to adopt a right-to-work law, found “no significant positive impact whatsoever on employment.” In fact, they found, both the number of companies relocating to Oklahoma and the total number of manufacturing jobs in the state fell by about a third after the law was passed.
The idea that right-to-work laws are needed to protect workers’ rights is also misguided. Our opponents don’t like to acknowledge it, but unions are democratic organizations. If the members don’t like the way things are going, they can elect new leaders, vote down contracts and even opt to decertify. No one can be required to join a union or pay dues to support causes they disagree with. Yet, unions still provide free representation, even for members who haven’t paid dues.
The same can’t be said of the Chamber of Commerce, one of the most aggressive
backers of the right-to-work notion. The chamber would, and has, refused to serve the interests of companies that don’t pay membership dues.
When an employer in Kentucky asked if it could maintain its membership without paying dues, the Owensboro chamber replied: “It would be against chamber by-laws and policy to consider any organization or business a member without dues being paid. The vast majority of the chamber’s annual revenues come from member dues, and it would be unfair to the other members to allow an organization not paying dues to be included in member benefits.” That’s probably not something you’ll hear them say when they are pushing Republican-controlled legislatures to jump on the right-to-work bandwagon.