Contrary to popular belief, state right-to-work laws don’t make it any harder to organize a union — those rules are set by federal law. All the state law does is make it possible for workers to opt out of paying their fair share of the cost of negotiating and implementing contracts. Yet even that doesn’t result in much of a difference. The percentage of workers in right-to-work states who chose not to participate is only 10 percentage points less than it is in non-right-to-work states. There are even right-to-work states, such as Nevada, where voluntary participation approaches 100 percent.
It is easy to dig up statistics showing that right-to-work states have slightly lower wages, lower unemployment and higher job growth, just as you can dig up statistics that show those states have significantly higher on-the-job injuries, less health care, less education and lower living standards. But these are examples of correlation, not causation. There is little or no evidence that such differences can be attributed to right-to-work laws. These states tend to have a variety of pro-business policies and anti-union cultures that, in terms of their economic impact, are almost impossible to untangle.
Steven Pearlstein is a Pulitzer Prize-winning business and economics columnist at The Washington Post.
Oklahoma offers a good case study. In 2001, the state enacted a right-to-work law in the hope of attracting lots of new investment and manufacturing jobs. But in the ensuing decade, the manufacturing sector shrank while the number of companies moving to the state fell by one-third. Over the same decade, Oklahoma saw its median household income go from being 15 percent above the national average to 3 percent below. Is all this the result of right-to-work laws? Of course not. But it also casts doubt on specious claims that such laws are the magic elixir for economic development.
The larger truth is that right-to-work laws have become increasingly irrelevant — along with the old model of labor-management relations that no longer works for almost anybody.
In that old model, unionized workers looked to stable employers to provide them with lifetime jobs, free health insurance and generous pensions, with pay based on longevity and job classification based on seniority. Little of this is now possible in a world in which competition is global, workers are mobile, companies are regularly sold or go out of business, and more work is done by independent contractors and part-time employees.
At the same time, workers now find it almost impossible to form a union in the face of a company determined to use bare-knuckle tactics to defeat them, including the firing of ringleaders and threats of layoffs and plant closures. Even in cases where the union does manage to get certified, many firms simply refuse to negotiate a first contract. And if workers decide to go out on strike, they are likely to find that nobody is willing to honor their picket line — not the truckers delivering supplies, not the customers, and certainly not the workers who line up around the block to take their place.