So-called "right-to-work" laws are again a hot topic of debate. Most right-to-work laws were passed decades ago, but Indiana (Republican) lawmakers hurriedly passed a right-to-work law last week, and Minnesota Republicans are pushing to have a right-to-work law included on the state's November ballot. The conservative perspective was succinctly summed up by a Minnesota legislator launching this initiative: "There is nothing more fundamental to my economic liberty than the ability to obtain employment, feed myself and my family, without having to pay another organization to do it" (Star Tribune, February 3, 2012). Powerful words. But accurate?
U.S. labor law allows private sector unions to negotiate contracts which contain agency shop clauses requiring all employees to pay a fraction of union dues as a condition of continued employment. As captured above, right-to-work advocates label this as "compulsory unionism" and argue that it violates individual freedoms by depriving workers of their right-to-work, that is, the right to freely choose whether or not to become a union member and pay union dues. Hence, they favor right-to-work laws that ban union and agency shop clauses. However, if we take the compulsory unionism argument literally, it's simply untrue. Union shop clauses are unenforceable in the United States, so no one can be forced to join a union against their will.
Yes, it's true that in states without right-to-work laws, workers who are in unionized bargaining units can be compelled to pay some, but not full, union dues. How much? The amount that is calculated as going toward representing workers--negotiating contracts, processing grievances, paying arbitration costs, and the like. Why? Because labor law requires unions to represent all employees--members and nonmembers alike. So unions argue that it is unfair to allow free-riders to benefit from union representation without sharing the costs by paying their fair share. It's also worth remembering that if there is an agency shop clause in a union contract, it's because union and management negotiators agreed to it, and it was approved by management and ratified by a vote of the rank and file. In other words, majority rule is a basic feature of democratic institutions and any dues paying requirements are subject to majority approval.
But what about the argument that right-to-work laws promote economic growth? The data on this can be challenged (see Gordon Lafer's report, for example). Even if we ignore the questionable nature of the empirical record, it is wishful thinking for someone to believe that if a state simply passes a right-to-work law, then economic growth will result. The problem is that even when right-to-work states do experience higher growth, it is difficult to attribute this solely to the right-to-work law. Right-to-work states also have lower business tax rates, less generous workers' compensation and unemployment insurance systems, and anti-union attitudes. There are also geographical differences that affect access to natural resources, transportation costs, and weather patterns. A right-to-work law by itself is not likely to stimulate economic growth. If you don't believe me, take a look at this video. Oh wait, that's me, too.
And a right-to-work law is certainly not going to promote the type of economic growth that we should demand--that is, based on high-paying jobs and respectful, productive labor-management relationships. Where is that right to work? Supporters of "right-to-work" laws typically oppose the right to work at a living wage, or the right to take care of one's family via paid sick leave, or the right to balance work and family by refusing mandatory overtime.
The bottom line is that debates over the cleverly-named "right-to-work" issue simply serve to further divide us in these already divisive times. I shudder to think at what the upcoming months will be like as Minnesotans are confronted with polarizing positions not only on right-to-work, but also on same-sex marriage. Our energy and our resources would be better spent directly tackling the serious issues that we face as a society.