Right-to-Work Advocates Are Driving a Wedge Between Unions and Workers
Union membership numbers are on the decline, and have been for decades. Labor detractors have been slowly chipping away at the strength of unions and the rights of workers by maligning unions in the media and passing anti-union legislation at the federal and state levels.
One of the most destructive legislative trends happening at the state level is the proliferation of right-to-work laws. Raymond Hogler, former professor of management at Colorado State University, labels right to work as “the most lethal blow to labor unions.”
Right to Work Continues to Erode Union Strength
States have been passing right-to-work legislation since 1947. That was when President Harry Truman passed the Taft-Hartley Act, which created the right-to-work law. The legislation allows states to prohibit compulsory union membership and agency fee payments as a condition for employment in both the public and private sectors.
Since then, 28 states have passed right-to-work laws. These laws are dangerous for unions because they stipulate that people who work in unionized workplaces do not have to join unions to reap the benefits of collective bargaining. Without that incentive to join, workers are less likely to choose to pay union dues and fees for membership when they can get the same benefits without joining, writes Dave Jamieson, labor reporter for the Huffington Post.
And right to work is having the intended effect its proponents were aiming for. Because workers can still enjoy the benefits of collective bargaining without having to join a union and pay dues, union membership numbers have fallen in states with right-to-work laws, Karla Walter and David Madland at the Center for American Progress Action Fund explain.
In an effort to capitalize on the continuing growth of right to work, Kentucky Senator Rand Paul introduced the National Right to Work Act in February 2019. The bill would give employees nationwide a choice to opt-out of joining or paying dues to unions.
Those who support right to work claim that such laws are a form of protection for workers because they are free to choose whether to join a union. But in reality these laws put workers in a weaker position because decreasing memberships undercuts the collective bargaining power that unions provide.
The Arguments Made by Right-to-Work Advocates
Those who support right to work put forth a number of claims of how these laws benefit workers.
One is that states with right-to-work laws attract more businesses than states without. Proponents argue that being a right-to-work state signals that a state is friendly to businesses and willing to be flexible to encourage productivity.
Because of this claim, states that don’t adopt right to work may feel they put themselves at a competitive disadvantage.
But this argument is shaky at best.
Ross Eisenbrey, senior fellow at the Economic Policy Institute (EPI), says the organization’s research hasn’t shown that right-to-work laws make a difference in employment growth. In fact, it isn’t a key issue for many company executives making location decisions, he says. “Corporate CEOs who answer surveys about the factors that determine where they locate, don’t even have right-to-work in the top ten factors that influence their decisions.”
Another common claim by right-to-work advocates is that workers in right-to-work states are more satisfied. A 2018 study by Christos Makridis, research assistant professor at Arizona State University, is often cited as evidence to support this claim. The study’s premise is that workers are happier because of improved employee-employer relationships at workplaces in right-to-work states.
While this may be so, what is often glossed over when discussing worker satisfaction in these terms is the fact that most workers at unionized workplaces in right-to-work states earn less than workers represented by unions in states without right-to-work laws. How is worker satisfaction impacted when people are earning less money than they could be?
The Key Facts the Proponents Ignore
Right-to-work proponents fail to address the economic conditions of individual workers who are in a union versus those who are not. The truth is right-to-work laws weaken unions, a condition that typically leaves workers worse off economically than if they were in a strong union.
“Allowing unions to be effective promotes the wages of not just union members, but non-union members as well,” says Jeff Hauser, a former AFL-CIO spokesman who now runs the Center for Economic and Policy Research’s Revolving Door Project.
Data from the EPI shows that wages in right-to-work states are 3.1 percent lower than in non-right-to-work states, no matter workers’ union affiliation. Furthermore, the AFL-CIO reports that more than 75 percent of union workers get health insurance benefits through work, while less than half of nonunion workers get those benefits.
These statistics demonstrate just how right-to-work laws keep workers from earning their top value throughout their careers. When unions are weak, workers suffer the consequences.
“The bottom line is that paychecks would probably be bigger, and paychecks would probably be more secure and reliable, if unions hadn’t declined over time,” Tom VanHeuvelen, sociology professor at the University of Illinois, concludes in a study on the individual outcomes of union benefits.
What Labor Supporters Are Doing to Combat Right to Work
The deck can sometimes feel stacked for labor supporters. Case in point: Labor sympathizers have been trying to overturn Virginia’s right-to-work law since the 1940s, as Virginia Public Radio reporter Michael Pope writes.
With a Democrat in the Executive Mansion and a Democratic majority in the Virginia House of Representatives, 2020 seemed like the year right-to-work might get repealed in the Commonwealth. Instead, it never even made it to the House Appropriations Committee’s final agenda, Pope reports.
Labor advocates face momentum and entrenched positions on many fronts in their attempts to repeal right-to-work legislation. One way they’re doing this is by supporting the Protecting the Right to Organize (PRO) Act, which would ease workers’ abilities to join unions by shifting the significant power from businesses to employees, says Alexia Fernández Campbell, policy and politics reporter at Vox. A key element of the bill is that it would reverse state-level right-to-work laws.
“The PRO Act addresses several major problems with the current law and tries to give working people a fair shot when they try to join together with their coworkers to form a union and bargain for better wages, benefits, and conditions at their workplaces,” write Celine McNicholas and Lynn Rhinehart at EPI.
Beyond attempting to reverse legislation, unions are also focusing on educating workers on the benefits of union membership. Leah Fried at Labor Notes says to “make membership the union’s business, not the boss’s.”
Telling a new hire that “the wages, benefits, and protections at your new job are here because workers support the union and fought for them” is the key to convincing workers to join unions for their own individual benefit, Fried writes.
UnionTrack ENGAGE can help union leaders and organizers in these efforts by allowing them to coordinate their messaging and keep members engaged in the union. A high level of engagement can translate into higher membership numbers.
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