This Law Could Destroy Workers’ Rights Forever
Politicians vote for laws that hurt the average citizen. Why?
Shortly after they were sworn into office last month, the new Republican governors of Missouri and Kentucky each signed a law with a deceptive name and devastating impact. In becoming the 27th and 28th states to enact “Right To Work” laws, they let loose a regulation killer that eviscerates labor unions by allowing employees to opt out of paying small dues to the organizations that negotiate their contracts and protect their rights in the workplace.
Borne out of the 1947 Taft-Hartley Act, Right To Work was codified in its first few decades largely across the low-wage and anti-union south. The laws didn’t take hold in a big way over the next 40 years, but over the last half decade they’ve become fashionable again, their passage in eight more states coinciding with Republican takeovers of two-thirds of state governments. That’s no coincidence, as the law functions to depress wages and worker autonomy, while increasing economic stratification?—?all outcomes preferred by the corporate donors that finance the Republican Party.
Also not a coincidence: The resurgence of the law began after the Supreme Court’s controversial Citizens United decision, giving corporations unlimited political spending power. That only helped fuel the push already underway: Southern businessmen founded The National Right To Work Committee in the 70s, while business-backed Chamber of Commerce groups have long pressed for the legislation to be enacted in different states.
Right To Work doesn’t destroy unions outright, at least not right away. Instead, it entitles all workers to contract benefits and workplace protections afforded to members, without requiring them to pay dues. That serves to slowly bankrupt unions, impairing their ability to negotiate with employers for workers in the future and depleting the resources required to unionize workers elsewhere. That dooms future contract negotiations at unionized companies, while denying workers elsewhere the means to fight for better jobs and wages. Why buy the cow when you can get the milk for free? Well, if you don’t buy the cow, someone’s gonna starve it to death.
The non-alternative facts
The non-partisan math?—?the non-alternative facts?—?have long made clear that these laws are detrimental to workers. A study published in 2001 found that “the mean effect of working in a Right To Work state results in a 6% to 8% reduction in wages for workers in these states.” When controlled for regional differences, the average wage penalty was 4% per worker.
In 2007, Hofstra professor Lonnie K. Stevans published a study that also controlled for economic conditions and other laws enacted in various states. His deep mathematical analysis found that “wages and personal income are both lower in Right To Work states, yet proprietors’ income is higher.”
Half a decade later, as the country clawed itself out of a recession and the economy was being remade by the internet, the one constant was that Right To Work states offered worse economic conditions for workers. In 2015, researchers for the Economic Policy Institute found incomes for workers in Right To Work states were on average 3.1% lower than the salaries of their counterparts in more union-friendly states.
That amounted to $1558 less a year in take-home pay?—?and that’s when you adjust for lots of economic factors. Without those controls, it’s even uglier. In 2014, a more simple look at income, as reported by the Bureau of Labor Statistics, found that workers in Right To Work economies made $6,109 (or 12.1%) less on average.
A 2011 EPI study was down-the-line terrible for those trying to argue that Right To Work does anything other than hurt workers. Employers unencumbered by empowered organized labor offered healthcare at a 2.6% lower rate and pensions at a 4.8% lower rate. So not only are workers paid less, they’re given less help with staying healthy, and less hope of retiring at an appropriate time.
It’s only been a few years since the new batch of states began passing Right To Work laws, so any economic data analyzing the impact comes with the large caveat of being culled from a small sample size. And yet, the early returns don’t look great.
When Wisconsin was debating enacting the law in 2015, the policy site UrbanMilwaukee.com looked at the job growth in comparable states, Indiana and Michigan, since they passed Right To Work in 2012. Spoiler alert: Job growth in both those states lagged behind the rest of the country, after having kept pace in the years prior.
And yet Wisconsin?—?led by Governor Scott Walker and a legislature dominated by Republicans?—?passed the law later that year.
The only other economic argument?—?that these laws help attract big business?—?also falls flat when we look at the data. As Newsweek pointed out last year, the State New Economy Index in 2014 showed that Right To Work is a non-factor to the high-tech, high-wage manufacturers that the law is allegedly designed to attract.
The impact for unions… and Democrats
So why do politicians vote for Right To Work laws if they hurt the average citizen?
First there are ideological reasons. If you’re being generous, you might say that conservatives still believe in trickle-down economics, which calls for less regulation of businesses so that they can grow and pay workers better. If you’re being realistic, you’d say that conservatism has proven over the last 70 years to be more comfortable with economic inequality in the name of “freedom,” and that faux-libertarian spirit is at the heart of Right To Work laws.
But modern economic conservative movements aren’t fueled simply by ideology. Instead, the Republican Party benefits from the vast majority of political donations from businesses?—?a cash flow that has turned into a flood since the Citizens United decision. The biggest corporate PACs now send most of their political money to the GOP, even in Silicon Valley, where some of the individual CEOs tend to favor Democrats.
The American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC) has pushed?—?and sometimes even written, word for word?—?the recent spate of Right To Work laws. ALEC is a massive organization that is financed almost entirely by major corporate PACs and billionaires, including Charles Koch, the single biggest financier of the Republican Party.
ALEC devotes much of its time to writing sample legislation favorable to its financiers and then pushing it on its member politicians. Think of an ALEC conference as a country club where big corporate donors hang out with politicians whose campaigns they just happen to finance.
And in the case of Right To Work, conservative politicians stand to gain in several ways. By passing Right To Work, not only do politicians please their donors, they also get to fuel the destruction of their political opponents.
Hard numbers vary, but studies have found that union members are anywhere from 2.5% to 10% more likely to vote than non-members. And those votes more often than not go to Democrats, as unions overwhelmingly back the Democratic Party, both with campaign services?—?donations, ground game, TV ads?—?and at the ballot box.
Union members are more progressive, regardless of their income. Workplace democracy empowers low-wage workers to fight harder for collective victories, and union membership keeps higher income members more connected to community.
Richard Freeman of the National Bureau of Economic Research has concluded that unionism “moves members to the left of where they would be given their socioeconomic status,” and that members “have attitudes and voting inclinations favorable to the Democrats and to liberalism prior to a given campaign.”
In the 2008 presidential election, union members broke for Barack Obama by 20%. Four years later, he won that demographic by 18%. While Hillary Clinton won union members by only 8% last year?—?thanks to Trump’s impossible promise to bring back millions of lost manufacturing jobs?—?nearly every major union group, including the umbrella organization the AFL-CIO, worked hard for her campaign. This cycle, unions spent $167 million on elections. Nearly all of that was in service of Clinton and Democrats.
Sure, billionaires can now pour unlimited funds into politics?—?and those like the Kochs and Sheldon Adelson do?—?but the union combination of cash, foot soldiers and progressive voters is a potent mix. The easiest way to counteract it? Slowly draining unions of their members.
That has happened naturally, to some degree, thanks to the automation and offshoring of manufacturing jobs. But the Reagan era kicked off a concentrated political assault on unions as well; since 1983, public union membership has fallen from over 20% of workers nationwide to just over 10% last year. There are now only 14.6 million union members, and Right To Work has proven to be a contributing factor.
Michigan provides the perfect example. Though the auto industry was rescued in 2010 and has rebounded since, the state’s union membership has plummeted over the last half-decade. In 2013, 16.3% of workers in Michigan were union members; last year, it fell to 14.4%.
Indiana is the one exception to the rule, having seen a small rise in membership since its 2012 passage, but you can chalk up much of that to the economic recovery, as well as to the fact that the state was at its lowest union member density in 25 years when the law was passed. Oklahoma’s union population has dropped from 8.6% in 2001 to under 6% more recently.
The stakes could not be higher
While blue states represent more union-friendly territory, and even some states with Republican legislatures have declined to make the full leap?—?New Hampshire’s voted down Right To Work earlier this month?—?there’s still a real danger that this could become national policy.
Right now, there are several lawsuits working their way through the courts, all sponsored by Right To Work interest groups. Challenges to “free ride” fees?—?the small dues employees pay to unions that negotiate with employers on their behalf?—?are underway in Illinois and California and other blue states. And even if they don’t win with Circuit Courts?—?and many plaintiffs don’t expect to be victorious there?—?the goal is to get the case to the Supreme Court.
Had former President Obama been able to get a hearing for Merrick Garland, his Supreme Court nominee, this would be a less daunting prospect for unions. But should President Trump’s nominee, Neil Gorsuch, make it to the bench, any case for unions becomes more dicey. And if the Supreme Court sides with plaintiffs against any mandatory fees, it will have the effect of eviscerating unions, making Right To Work more or less the law of the land.
The stakes could not be higher, for both unions and Democrats.