So-called “Right to Work” and the Assault on the Middle Class

{by Laura Clawson and originally posted on Daily Kos

“In our glorious fight for civil rights, we must guard against being fooled by false slogans, such as ‘right-to-work.’ It provides no ‘rights’ and no ‘works.’ Its purpose is to destroy labor unions and the freedom of collective bargaining…We demand this fraud be stopped.” – Martin Luther King, Jr.

“Right to work” is, along with “Death Tax” and “Clear Skies Act,” among the disco hits of Republican Orwellian language. As the fact that it was around for Martin Luther King to address it suggests, it is one of the longest-disputed such false slogans and frauds. That we are still fighting it shows both the degree to which Republican officeholders and the corporations that fight so hard to elect them want this legislation on the books from coast to coast and the tenacity with which working people have fought back.

It’s not enough for today’s Republicans that the richest 1% of the population takes in 24% of the nation’s income. Not enough for them that 20% of the population holds 85% of the wealth.

Not enough for them that median weekly wages, when adjusted for inflation, fell slightly for both high school and college graduates from 2000 to 2009, according to a recent analysis by the Economic Policy Institute, a Washington think tank.

No, not content with all of that, they’re mounting a massive assault on what we have left. In a classic divide and conquer strategy, most of the most overt assaults are on unions—get non-union workers to think that the economy is in trouble because the teacher down the street has a pension rather than because the wealthy have more than their share and don’t pay their share. But ultimately, it’s not about corporations and Republicans vs. unions. It’s about corporations and Republicans vs. working people—if you’ll notice, everyone outside the top 10% or so has been losing ground, not just union members. (Not mostly union members, in fact, which is probably why they get targeted first.) And attempting to pass RtW laws in several states is part of that assault.

“Right to work” is an astonishingly misleading term, even in company with “death tax.” Its proponents would have you believe that without RtW laws in place, you can be forced to join a union in order to get a job…in a unionized workplace, a point they tend to gloss over. I mean, really, it would be nice if job=job in a unionized workplace, but that’s not remotely the case. In reality (PDF), though, you can never be forced to join a union—you can only be required to pay dues directly related to work the union does representing you.

In fact, RtW laws actually represent the government interfering in what employers can do, by preventing employers and unions from agreeing to “union security” clauses. A union security clause says that if the union represents you, you have to pay your share of the costs they incur. So what banning that type of agreement means is that if someone gets a job in a unionized workplace, the union has to represent them, but they have no responsibility to the union. They get the wages and benefits negotiated, however improved those may be (union members earn, on average, 28% more than non-members), and don’t contribute to the costs of negotiating. If they’re fired illegally, the union represents them for free, no matter how much staff time and resources go into defending them. And if they feel like the union didn’t do well enough representing them for free, they can sue.

You can see where that goes. People enter as freeloaders, happy to have improved wages and benefits and help when they have a problem with the boss, and happy to let someone else pay for it. But that freeloading weakens the union, and in the end, working conditions and pay are driven down for everyone: RtW states have an average wage $5,500 lower than other states.

The Republicans pushing RtW would have you believe that it draws employers into states and raises employment levels—and to bend over backwards in an attempt to be fair, lower wages in those states could be simply a regional effect. But the figures don’t bear that out. Lonnie Stevans, a professor in the Hofstra University department of information technology and quantitative methods, studied the effects of RtW laws on economic growth (after controlling for things like education levels and type of employment).

Stevans found that a state’s right-to-work law:

1. Has no impact on economic growth

2. Has no influence on employment

3. Has no influence on business capital formation (the ratio of firm ‘births’ to the number of firms)

4. Is correlated with a decrease in wages

Stevan’s analysis of right-to-work states also yielded the following observations:

  • The average real state GDP growth rate of right-to-work states is not significantly different than non-right-to-work states
  • The average per capita income in right-to-work states is lower than in non-right-to-work states

Stevans concluded his analysis with the following observation:

“…From a state’s economic standpoint, being right-to-work yields little or no gain in employment and real economic growth.”

Additionally, consider the following measures. Of the top 10 states by median household income, only one is RtW. Of the bottom 10, seven are. RtW states also have higher rates of workplace death (PDF) and infant mortality, lower spending on education, and poorer educational results.

If “right-to-work” legislation proceeds in many states, maybe someday the people pushing them now will be looking back with the same regret as this man:

Edward Steimel, who spearheaded passage of Louisiana’s “right to work” law in the 1970s, now says that “the pendulum has swung too far” and construction workers in the state are underpaid.

“A look at the construction craftsmen’s wage rates in Louisiana for the year 2000 compared to wage rates in Michigan, New Jersey and Illinois show a bleak story for Louisiana workers,” Steimel said. “It also explains why so many workers are leaving their families here in search of higher pay elsewhere.”

But by then, how many working families will have struggled and been broken by the ever-more-hostile economy and work environment?