The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Right to work for less: Gov. Scott Walker wants to lower worker pay in Wisconsin

Gov. Scott Walker wants Wisconsin to join states covered by right-to-work laws. (John Hart/Wisconsin State Journal via Associated Press)

The art of the misnomer — an industry standard of American politics — has rarely been more effectively applied than in right-to-work laws. Since Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker (R) and the state legislature are in the midst of trying to turn the state into the 25th covered by the laws, it’s worth unpacking what’s going on here.

Here’s what the legislation does: It makes it illegal for unions to negotiate contracts wherein everyone covered by that contract has to contribute to its negotiation and enforcement.

Let’s be very clear about this: RTW does not confer some new right or privilege on those in states that adopt it. It takes away an existing right: the ability of unions to require the beneficiaries of union contracts to pay for their negotiation and enforcement. In anything, the law creates a right to freeload — to reap the significant benefits of union bargaining without paying for them.

Let’s also be clear about what goes on in non-RTW states, as anti-union forces consistently distort the current reality. In non-RTW states, no one has to join a union. There have been no “closed shops” in America for more than 20 years. When RTW advocates say they’re fighting against “forced unionism,” they are making stuff up. There’s no such thing.

Workers in a bargaining unit in non-RTW states don’t even have to pay full union dues. If they object to, say, the union’s political activities, they can pay reduced dues that cover only the costs of negotiating and enforcing the contract. Since that’s most of what local unions do, by the way, such fees amount to 80 percent to 90 percent of full dues.

So when Steve Moore of the Heritage Foundation claims that workers in non-RTW states “can be compelled to join a union and pay dues at a union shop whether they wish to or not” or that they “can even be forced to pay union dues for partisan political activities with which they don’t agree,” he’s deep within a fact-free zone.

Gordon Lafer, whose work on this issue is indispensable, points out the following:

“There are many organizations that, like unions, require membership dues. For instance, an attorney who wants to appear in court must be a dues-paying member of the bar association. One may dislike the bar association, but must still pay dues if he or she wants to appear in court. Condominium or homeowners associations similarly require dues of their members. A homebuyer can’t choose to live in a condominium development without paying the association fees. Yet the national corporate lobbies supporting RTW are not proposing a ‘right to practice law’ or a ‘right to live where you want.’ They are focused solely on restricting employees’ organizations.”

Along with misnaming, the other silly game you see played in these debates involves cooking the numbers to make it look like your preferred policy unleashes reams of growth and jobs and whatever other fairy dust you’re selling. I could easily argue that Mississippi, a RTW state, had the highest state unemployment rate at the end of last year and the lowest job growth. You could just as easily point out that North Dakota, as a RTW state, had the lowest unemployment rate and highest job growth. In fact, that sounds uncomfortably like a D.C. pundits’ debate.

Thankfully, Brad Plumer reviewed the exhaustive research on the effect of RTW on state economies and provides this useful summary:

“There’s a dizzying amount of research on the subject, but a few broad conclusions have emerged over the years: Right-to-work laws do weaken labor unions. The laws appear to tilt the balance of power so that workers reap fewer of the gains from growth. And it’s still hard to find definitive evidence that right-to-work laws help (or harm) a state’s overall economy.”

Finally, economists Heidi Shierholz and Elise Gould do the rigorous statistical analysis to quantify Plumer’s “appear to tilt” point. They look at the difference in pay between RTW and non-RTW states and find that the “raw” difference, with no effort to control for the wide variety of wage determinants, is about 14 percent in favor of non-RTW states. But that makes no more sense than ignoring North Dakota’s energy-extraction boom in celebrating its low unemployment rate.

When they add a full set of controls, including workers’ characteristics, state economic conditions and state price differences, they still find a significant wage advantage in non-RTW states of about 3 percent, which, for full-time workers, amounts to $1,500 per year.

Look, there are no perfect institutions in America, and unions are no exception. But they exist for a critically important reason: to balance out the inherent power of employers over workers and, thus, to enforce a more equitable distribution of the fruits of growth. In this regard, it is not a coincidence that as unions have diminished in numbers and power, the earnings of the middle class have stagnated.

Moreover, because of their role in balancing power, unions in America have also been an important force for progressive politics. Though they still play that role, it, too, is diminished. Here again, the rise of a disparaged government engaged in dysfunctional, broken politics is no coincidence.

So regardless of where you stand on this issue, and especially if you’ve reasonably been walking around thinking “right-to-work” sounds like something you should support, read the Lafer link above and see whether you find it convincing. And if you do, please pass it forward. Working Americans have enough trouble trying to make ends meet in this economy without deeply funded propagandists undermining their already weak bargaining power.