Right-to-work laws might not be all that their proponents say they are

THE OLYMPIANNovember 11, 2011 

Since the passage of the Taft-Hartley Act of 1947, which disallowed further use of the closed- or union-only shop, right-to-work legislation has spread steadily across United States.

Today 22 states have passed such legislation and are known as right-to-work (RTW) states. Additional states are considering similar legislation.

Proponents say that such laws make states that adopt them more competitive, grow state economies, lower unemployment and safeguard worker freedoms.

Critics say the exact opposite.

There is a wide variety of available data that will justify either position.

Because there are those that wish to bring such legislation to Washington, having some understanding of the debate surrounding right-to-work is somewhat important. From what I have read, it seems passage of such legislation here is more likely to result in a further decline in unionization and worker wages than to a more robust economy or greater worker freedom.

But that is simply my humble opinion. My hope is to get readers interested enough to do their own research and to come to their own conclusions and, as a result, make all of us more informed voters whatever our outlook.

And so we begin.

There are many arguments in support of right-to-work legislation. The first is that RTW legislation makes states more competitive and results in a significantly stronger economy. My research led me to believe that this is unlikely. Why? Because RTW legislation primarily impacts unionized labor and reduces pay, benefits and allowances.

Data I looked at indicated that, typically, in right-to-work states workers, unionized or not, realize decreases in wages, benefits and allowances of 3 percent to 5 percent as compared with non-RTW states. That eventually translates into lower real mean household income. An example of the possible result of this is a 2009 study showing that 18 of 22, or 82 percent, of right-to-work states placed below the U.S. national average in real mean household income. Though the change to a right-to-work state would likely directly impact unionized labor that force, though declining, currently is in the neighborhood of 7 percent to 8 percent for the private sector and 35 percent to 38 percent for the public sector – 42 percent to 46 percent total.

This represents a significant loss buying power. This means fewer purchases and less tax revenue. Add to that a steady decline in education and infrastructure spending – fewer qualified workers and declining transportation system.

Those are not good economic indicators.

While right-to-work laws alone don’t guarantee overall economic success or failure they appeared more likely to be a neutral to negative influence overall.

The second argument is that right-to-work laws result in reduced unemployment through lower salaries and regulatory burdens.

Certainly these are factors employers look for. But there are many others such as infrastructure (roads, ports, etc.) and education (educated/trained workers), for example. Employers, especially those employing skilled workers aren’t necessarily looking only for the cheapest workers but also qualified workers.

In reality the problem is more complicated. Oklahoma, for example, rather than gaining new jobs following approval of right-to-work laws added roughly one-third fewer jobs annually from 2001 to 2010. So, right-to-work alone may, or may not, improve job creation.

Finally, there is the argument that right-to-work laws protect worker freedom and choice. Some argue that union security clauses requiring all workers to join a union and pay dues violate workers’ right to free association. Others, conservatives among them, argue that disallowing employers from arriving at such agreements violates their right to freedom of contract.

Related to this is the dues issue. By existing labor law, workers have the ability to opt to pay a representation fee and not be considered a member of the union.

Each of these issues, and many more, are important to consider when deciding whether right-to-work laws are beneficial or not. Consider for yourself and see what you think about the issue.

Kevin Deleon, an employee of the state of Washington and of the Washington Army National Guard, is a member of The Olympian’s Diversity Panel. He can be reached KreggieD@aol.com.

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