Colorado legislators recently quashed a measure that would have introduced a “Right-to-Work” policy, making it illegal for companies to require that employees pay “agency fees” for the protection of collective bargaining and other union benefits. The six Democrats on the House State, Veterans and Military Affairs Committee shut down SB 55, allowing Colorado’s Labor Peace Act to remain intact for at least another year. The Labor Peace Act requires unions to vote twice when unionizing a shop and makes it mandatory for 75 percent of the workforce to approve unionization.
There are currently 28 states with “Right-to-Work” statutes limiting the (the already weakened) influence of unions. According to those who support these laws (primarily big business), it is wrong to “force” workers to join unions, as this allegedly restricts their ability (or their right) to find work. But according to Rick Unger of Forbes.com, the Taft-Hartley Act of 1947, which set the groundwork for “Right-to-Work” laws, prevents unions from setting up “closed shops,” meaning agreements between unions and employers can’t include provisions requiring all employees to be union members. Instead, as a compromise, union-employer contracts can require employees to pay what is known as an agency fee, which covers many union benefits such as collective bargaining.
“Right-to-Work” laws do away with agency fees, diminishing the ability of unions to bargain for higher pay, which in turn decreases median hourly wages. According to Salvatore Babones of Truth-Out.com, median hourly wages in North Carolina, South Carolina and Georgia (all “Right-to-Work” states) are $15.16, $14.45 and $15.25, respectively, while the median wages in New York, Alaska and Hawaii (states with union membership rates over 20 percent) are $19.02, $20.65 and $17.44.
The point is this: even if it is true that “Right-to-Work” states have more available jobs, it is also true that the available jobs in those states lack decent pay, solid benefits and adequate protection against exploitative practices in the workplace.
Do Right-to-Work Laws Really Help Workers?
Advocates such as the National Right to Work Legal Defense Foundation (NRWLDF) argue for these laws in terms of freedom and rights. On their website, they suggest that a “Right-to Work law secures the right of employees to decide for themselves whether or not to join or financially support a union.” And according to Will Collins of the same organization, “The case for right-to-work has always rested on the importance of defending worker freedom, but right-to-work laws also have a proven track record of encouraging economic growth.”
In these arguments, there are two major fallacies. The first is that employees in non-“Right-to-Work” states are in fact forced to join or support a union. Following Unger’s analysis, this is false. One only needs to pay for those benefits that they receive directly. The second fallacy is that these laws “encourage economic growth,” meaning they increase the amount of jobs available to the public. But in a well-known Economic Policy Institute (EPI) study by Gordon Lafer and Sylvia Allegretto, Oklahoma’s decision to implement such a rule in 2001 was followed by an immediate downturn in employment rates. Though it cannot be shown that “Right-to-Work” policies directly caused employment rates to fall, it can be said with confidence that these policies “had no positive impact on the manufacturing sector and, in the face of broader forces undermining the sector, right-to-work was simply impotent.”
So who benefits from these laws? To quote Babones, “They’re good for employers, industry associations and lobbyists, who skim a fortune off the couple of dollars lost every single hour.” In sum, workers suffer in the name of a false “freedom,” while businesses gain profit from reduced pay.