Right to Work (For Less): The Impact of ‘Right to Work’ Laws on Workers, Their Families, and the Economy as a Whole

Right to Work (For Less):

The Impact of ‘Right to Work’ Laws on Workers, Their Families, and the Economy as a Whole

By Nathan Gilbert

“Those who would destroy or further limit the right of organized labor- those who would cripple collective bargaining or prevent organization of the unorganized- do a disservice to the cause of democracy”[1] –John F. Kennedy

  1. Introduction

Over the past few years, those who seek to restrict and roll-back workers’ rights have been hard at work.  From Gov. Scott Walker’s push in Wisconsin to restrict collective bargaining rights,[2] to politicians interfering with a union election in Tennessee[3], the war on workers and their hard-fought gains in the workplace is being waged nationwide.  One of the major fronts in this struggle is the promulgation of so-called ‘Right to Work” laws.[4] This essay will examine Right to Work laws and the adverse impact they ultimately have on those who they claim to protect.

  1. Right to Work Explained

To adequately address this issue, we must first define what a Right to Work law is.  In short, Right to Work laws allow those represented by unions and covered by collective bargaining agreements negotiated and administered by unions to opt out of paying for such representation.[5] In a non-Right to Work state, or union security state, if an individual works in a location that is represented by a union, the employee has a choice: he can either choose to join the union and pay union dues, or he can choose not to join the union and pay a fair share fee to compensate the union for the costs of representing him.[6]

Critics call this “forced unionism”[7], but this moniker is simply not true.  Since the passage of the Taft Hartley Act of 1947, no person can be forced to join a union as a condition of employment.[8]  So, even in a state without Right to Work, no one can be forced to join a union against their will.  What is true, however, is that in union security states, employees who choose not to join the union can be required to pay a fee to the union to reimburse it for the costs of representing the worker.[9] The NLRB mandates that this fee cover “only that share of dues used directly for representation, such as collective bargaining and contract administration.”[10]  This is because, if the employee works in a union environment, the union is bound to represent and negotiate on behalf of all workers in the bargaining unit whether  they choose to join the union or not.[11]

The difference in a Right to Work state is that an employee cannot be required to pay union dues, nor pay such a fee to the union for the costs of representation, nor can he be required to join the union that represents him.[12] Essentially, the worker can get a “free ride”, by not paying union dues nor a fair share fee while still retaining all of the wages, benefits, and representational rights that the union has bargained for.  Again, the worker still enjoys all of the benefits and protections of the union contract even though he is not reimbursing the union at all for the services rendered.[13]

To help explain this concept, it may be beneficial to use an example. Let’s consider John the welder.  John chooses to go to work for ABC Corp. in Colorado, a union security state.  ABC’s employees are represented by Union XYZ.  When John chooses to go to work for ABC, he will be covered by the union contract negotiated and administered by XYZ.  This means he will receive all of the protections that come from union representation.  Since John is working in a union security state, he will be required to either join the union or pay a fair share fee to the union for their services in representing him.[14]  Now, let’s change the scenario and place John in a Right to Work state, say Mississippi.  John still works for ABC and is still represented by Union XYZ.  The difference now is that, because of the Right to Work law, John is not required to pay anything for the representation and benefits he receives under the union contract.[15]  He is basically allowed to receive all of the union benefits and representation without footing any of the bill.  This shifts the costs of John’s representation to his fellow co-workers who do choose to join the union.  Essentially, John’s co-workers are paying for his ‘right’ to free load.  It naturally follows that if all workers can get union benefits and protections without paying for them, then it is likely that very few employees will ever join the union and eventually the union will not be financially able to continue representing the employees.

This would be akin to a shopper going into a warehouse store such as Sam’s Club and demanding the same lower prices enjoyed by members without having to pay for those benefits through membership fees.  I can imagine that Sam’s Club would not support such a “right-to-shop” scheme, but this is no different than Right to Work.  It seems that union security states operate on the simple principle that if one enjoys the benefits on another’s hard work, he/she should have to contribute something to compensate for those efforts.  In a union security state, if a worker does not want to join the union or pay his fair share, he is still free to find work in an environment without union representation.  Unions are not charities and cannot survive without dues-paying members. Thus, it is natural that Right to Work laws would lead to the decreasing power of unions and a parallel decline in the standard of living for workers. This is exactly what Right to Work does.

  1. Consequences of Right to Work

One of the main consequences of attacking workers and their unions through Right to Work laws is the lower wages and benefits enjoyed by such workers when compared to those represented by unions:

  • “On average workers in states with “Right to Work” earn $5,538 a year less than workers in states without these laws.”[16]
  • “Overall union members earn 28 percent ($198) more per week than nonunion workers.”[17]
  •  “78 percent of private sector union workers have access to medical insurance through their jobs, compared with 51 percent of nonunion workers.”[18]
  • “Only 2.9 percent of union workers are uninsured, compared with14.2 percent of nonunion workers.”[19]
  • “…77 percent of private sector union workers have access to a guaranteed (defined benefit) retirement plan through their jobs, compared with just 20 percent of nonunion workers”[20]
  • Perhaps most startlingly, “[a]ccording to data from the Bureau of Labor Statistics, the rate of workplace deaths is 52.9% higher in states with Right-to-Work laws.”[21]

One of the main reasons that many on the Right often cite in of support Right to Work laws is that they believe that these laws will create jobs and support industrial development in their states.[22]  This also, does not seem to be the case.  A study from the Economic Policy Institute examined the state of Oklahoma before and after it passed Right to Work legislation.[23]  The study concluded that “Right-to-work laws have not succeeded in boosting employment growth in the states that have adopted them.”[24] Additionally, when looking at Oklahoma, one of the most recent states to pass Right to Work, the study found that before the law, manufacturing jobs were on the increase, but after Right to Work, “manufacturing employment and relocations into the state reversed their climb and began to fall, precisely the opposite of what right-to-work advocates promised.”[25]  Thus, the job growth panacea promised by proponents of Right to Work does not seem to conflate with reality.

But, for argument’s sake, let’s assume for a moment that Right to Work laws did increase job growth in states that adopt it. Would that be a good thing?  The businesses that would be moving to Right to Work states would likely move there to escape the wages and benefits bargained for by unions in their former states.  This means that these companies are likely relocating to Right to Work states to take advantage of lower wages, fewer benefits, and less workers’ rights and safety regulations. Is this the kind of economy that we want to encourage?  Right to Work contributes to a race to the bottom where the state that offers the lowest wages and fewest benefits “wins” new business.  But it is surely not the workers nor their families who “win”[26], nor is it even the states who attract these news jobs.[27]  It seems that the only winners of the race to the bottom are big business and the campaign accounts of their political allies.  This is evidenced by the millions of dollars big businesses and their affiliated lobbying organizations spend supporting Right to Work and other anti-worker legislation.[28]

  1. Conclusion

In conclusion, Right to Work is just another battle in the current War on Workers and their families.  Right to Work allows employees to enjoy all the benefits of union representation while paying none of the costs.[29]  In addition, Right to Work contributes to lower wages[30] and fewer benefits,[31] all the while failing to deliver on its promise of economic growth.[32]  Right to Work may be right for big business and politicians who seek to rescind workers’ rights and attack the unions that fought for and continue to defend them, but it is wrong for America.

[1] John F. Kennedy, Special Labor Day Message from Democratic Presidential Candidate John F. Kennedy, Am. Presidency Project (Sep. 5, 1960), available at http://www.presidency.ucsb.edu/ws/?pid=60413#axzz2jViZXIW8.

[2] Ian Saleh, Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker Signs Collective Bargaining Bill, Bypasses Senate Democrats, The Washington Post(Mar. 11, 2011), available at http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-dyn/content/article/2011/03/11/AR2011031103966.html

[3] Historic Election Brings Outside Interference In the Vote of Chattanooga Volkswagen Workers, United Auto Workers (Feb. 14, 2014), available at http://www.uaw.org/articles/historic-election-brings-outside-interference-vote-chattanooga-volkswagen-workers.

[4] Gordon Evans, Mother Jones: Right to Work Could Spread Beyond Michigan, WMUK 102.1 FM (Feb. 2, 2014), available at http://wmuk.org/post/mother-jones-right-work-could-spread-beyond-michigan

[5] Employer/Union Rights and Obligations, Nat’l Lab. Rel. Board, available at http://www.nlrb.gov/rights-we-protect/employerunion-rights-and-obligations (Last visited Mar. 27, 2014).

[6] See id. (“The NLRA allows employers and unions to enter into union security agreements which require all employees in a bargaining unit to… pay[] union dues and fees…  Even under a security agreement, employees who object to full union membership may… pay only that share of dues used directly for representation…”)

[7] Right to Work States, Nat’l Right to Work Legal Def. Found., available at http://www.nrtw.org/rtws.htm (Last visited Mar. 27, 2014.)

[8] 1947 Taft-Hartley Substantive Provisions, Nat’l Lab. Rel. Board, available at http://www.nlrb.gov/who-we-are/our-history/1947-taft-hartley-substantive-provisions (Last visited Mar 27, 2014).

[9]  See Nat’l Lab. Rel. Board, supra note 5.

[10] Id.

[11] Id.

[12] Id.

[13] See id.

[14] See id.

[15] See id.

[16] Jennifer Schaubach, “Right to Work” Laws: Get the Facts, Minnesota AFL-CIO, available at http://www.mnaflcio.org/news/right-work-laws-get-facts (Last visited Mar. 27, 2014).

[17] Id.

[18] Id.

[19] Id.

[20] Id.

[21] Id.

[22] James Sherk, Right to Work Increases Jobs and Choices, The Heritage Foundation (Nov. 9, 2011), available at http://www.heritage.org/research/reports/2011/11/right-to-work-increases-jobs-and-choices.

[23] Sylvia A. Allegretto & Gordon Lafer, Does ‘Right-to-Work’ Create Jobs? Answers from Oklahoma, Econ. Pol’y Inst. (Feb. 28, 2011), available at http://www.epi.org/publication/bp300/.

[24] Id.

[25] Id.

[26] See Schaubach, supra note 16.

[27] See Allegretto & Lafer, supra note 23.

[28] See Lee Fang, Pro-‘Right to Work’ Groups In Michigan Outspend Union Counterparts, The Nation (Dec. 8, 2012), available at http://www.thenation.com/blog/171663/pro-right-work-groups-michigan-outspend-union-counterparts# (For example, in a recent Right to Work fight in Michigan, big business funded groups spent millions of dollars and vastly outspent their labor opponents in succeeding to get Right to Work legislation passed there)

[29] See Nat’l Lab. Rel. Board, supra note 5.

[30] See Schaubach, supra note 16.

[31] See id.

[32] See Allegretto & Lafer, supra note 23.


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