by Ralph E. Stone
June 14, 2012
In February this year, Indiana became the 23rd state to enact a right-to-work law, the only RTW law passed in the last decade. Republicans generally favor RTW laws while unions and Democrats do not. RTW laws are geographical too. RTW states are clustered in the Southeast, covering every state from Virginia to Florida and west to Texas, and then north through the Great Plains to the Dakotas and into the Rockies. The West Coast and Midwest-to-Northeast Rust Belt, both traditional union strongholds, have remained non-RTW states. RTW states generally vote Republican while non-RTW states generally vote Democrat.
RTW is also a potent political symbol, causing serious adverse financial consequences for unions. The Democratic Party receives significant support from organized labor, who supply a great deal of the money, grass roots political organization, and voting base in support of the party. Thus, RTW is not only an assault on unions, but also on the Democratic Party, who rely on labor for support.
Section 14(b) of the Taft-Hartley amendments to the Labor Management Relations Act, 29 U.S.C §141, permits a state to pass laws that prohibit unions from requiring a worker to pay dues, even when the worker is covered by a union-negotiated collective bargaining agreement. Thus, workers in RTW states have less incentive to join a union and to pay union dues and, as a result, unions have less clout vis-à-vis corporations. In other words, RTW laws prohibit union contracts at private sector workplaces from requiring employees to pay any dues or other fees to the union. In states without such laws, workers at unionized workplaces generally have to pay such dues or fees.
RTW laws tend to diminish union power and influence. Labor leaders say that allowing workers to opt out of paying any money to the union that represents them weakens unions’ finances, bargaining clout, and political power.
According to Steven Greenhouse of the New York Times, Henry Farber, a labor economist at Princeton, said RTW laws, by allowing “free riders,” shrink union treasuries. (RTW advocates say such employees have been forced into unions, but organized labor calls them “free riders”). One study found that the portion of free riders in RTW states ranged from 9 percent in Georgia to 39 percent in South Dakota.
Greenhouse cites another study by David T. Ellwood, the dean of the Kennedy School of Government at Harvard, and Glenn A. Fine, a former Justice Department official, who found that in the five years after states enacted RTW laws, the number of unionization drives dropped by 28 percent, and in the following five years by an added 12 percent. Organizing wins fell by 46 percent in the first five years and 30 percent the next five. Over all, they found, RTW laws, beyond other factors, caused union membership to drop 5 percent to 10 percent.
Proponents of RTW laws claim that states with such laws grow faster and their citizens are better off. But with their faster growing populations, RTW states had unemployment rates averaging 8 percent in April of 2011, just below the 8.2 percent average in non-RTW states.
In The Compensation Penalty of “Right-To-Work” Laws by the Economic Policy Institute, economists Elise Gould and Heidi Shierholz examined the differences in compensation between RTW and non-RTW states. (The Economic Policy Institute is a labor-backed research center). Controlling for the demographic and job characteristics of workers as well as state-level economic conditions and cost-of-living differences across states, they found that in 2009 wages were 3.2 percent lower in RTW states versus non-RTW – about $1,500 less annually for a full-time, year-round worker; the rate of employer-sponsored health insurance was 2.6 percentage points lower in RTW states compared with non-RTW states; the rate of employer-sponsored pensions was 4.8 percentage points lower in RTW states. And, in 2008, the rate of workplace deaths was 57 precent higher in RTW states than non-RTW states, while the 2009, poverty rate in RTW states averaged 15 percent, considerably above the 12.8 percent average for non-RTW states.
Gould and Shierholz concluded, “RTW legislation misleadingly sounds like a positive change in this weak economy, in reality the opportunity it gives workers is only that to work for lower wages and fewer benefits. For legislators dedicated to making policy on the basis of economic fact rather than ideological passion, our findings indicate that, contrary to the rhetoric of RTW proponents, the data show that workers in “right-to-work” states have lower compensation – both union and nonunion workers alike.”
And according to Gordon Lafer, an economist at the University of Oregon’s Labor Education and Research Center, there is no evidence that RTW laws have any positive impact on employment or bringing back manufacturing jobs. Commenting on Oklahoma’s passage of a RTW law in 2001, Lafer, noted that rather than increasing job opportunities, the state saw companies relocate out of Oklahoma. In high-tech industries and those service industries “dependent on consumer spending in the local economy” the laws appear to have actually damaged growth. At the end of the decade, 50,000 fewer Oklahoma residents had jobs in manufacturing. Perhaps most damning, Lafer could find no evidence that the legislation had a positive impact on employment rates.
In May 8, 2011, Senator Jim DeMint (R. SC) introduced the National Right-to-Work Act (S-504), a bill to preserve and protect the free choice of individual employees to form, join, or assist labor organizations, or to refrain from such activities. S-504 has no chance of passage in the Senate and even if it did, President Obama would likely veto it. However, if the Republicans retake the White House and Senate, and retain the House, you can bet a National RTW Act will be high on the Republican to do list.
Why do we need unions anyway? Because they are essential for America. Unions are the only large-scale movement left in America that persistently acts as a countervailing balance against corporate power. They act in the economic interests of the working class. But the decline of unions over the past few decades has left corporations and the rich with essentially no powerful opposition.
You may take issue with a particular union’s position on an issue, but remember unions are the only real organized check on the power of the business community in this country. RTW laws are anti-union, pro-business.