Critics have argued a recently introduced national right-to-work bill will hurt worker rights by making it harder to join a union, but others contest the criticism doesn’t reflect reality.
Congressional Republicans introduced the measure Feb. 1 with the aim of making right-to-work a national policy. Unions and other critics argue it will make it more difficult for workers to collectively bargain for better wages and working conditions. Others contest the proposed bill does no such thing.
“It’s clear right-to-work is about weakening unions, and taking away workers’ ability to come together to try to improve their workplaces,” Center for American Progress senior fellow David Madland told InsideSources. “By itself, right-to-work isn’t going to kill unions. It’s one more thing that is going to hurt them.”
Those in support of the measure, however, contest it merely gives workers a choice. The policy outlaws mandatory union dues or fees as a condition of employment. American Enterprise Institute scholar Aparna Mathur notes there is nothing in the policy that prevents workers from joining a union.
“This is not a law that tells employees they cannot be part of a union,” Mathur told InsideSources. “All it is saying is, essentially, workers now have a choice whether they want to be part of a union or they decide they don’t want to be part of a union. I don’t view it as an anti-union policy.”
Federal law currently allows states to decide on their own whether they want to be right-to-work or not. Missouri Governor Eric Greitens made his state the latest to enact the policy by signing it into law this year.
Madland contests the policy isn’t really about worker choice, despite what supporters claim.
“The claim about giving workers a choice is bogus,” Madland said. “They’re not actually about expanding workers’ rights to choose. If they really wanted to do that they could do a whole host of things. This is really about changing the finances of unions, and making it harder for workers to finance unions.”
Madland adds the real purpose behind the law is to take away worker rights. He says workers will no longer have the ability to negotiate with their employers or hold them accountable. Madland believes a national law will mean lower wages and bad working conditions across the country.
“It’s clear that workers’ wages will fall, it’s clear that workers will have less influence in politics, and the ability to hold their elected officials accountable, it’s clear that workers will have less influence over corporations and their power,” Madland said. “There’s no doubt about those effects.”
Research has been fairly mixed when it comes to what impact right-to-work actually has on workers. The Economic Policy Institute found the policy results in decreased wages and benefits. The Heritage Foundation, however, found wages and benefits in right-to-work states aren’t actually less when you adjust for the cost of living.
“When unions were relevant, factory conditions, working conditions were bad, workers were poorly paid. People needed to be part of a group to represent their interests to an employer,” Mathur said. “The reason you see this shift away from unions today is because many of those things have become standard.”
Mathur adds the government dictates many of the things unions used to fight for. Federal law mandates everything from workplace safety standards, employment benefits, and a minimum wage. Unions have also become very political in a way that might not necessarily represent the interests of their membership.
“The main problem with labor unions is the fact that they increasing fail to represent the interests of their members, thus incentivizing a long-term decline,” Regent University Prof. Harry Hutchison told InsideSources. “Their lobbying efforts seem to be more in tune with national as opposed to local politics and conditions.”
Mathur also notes that the claim that unions will see a huge decline in membership is overblown. She adds it’s difficult to determine how much the policy contributes to declining union rolls. Many right-to-work states were trending away from unions before they even adopted the law.
“In most of the states that have adopted right-to-work laws, you do find that union membership does decline marginally,” Mathur said. “I think these were states that were deunionizing anyways. So, I think it’s hard to say that it was the right-to-work law that really drove that.”
Mathur adds the union membership rate has been declining across the country. The decline has even been happening in states without the policy, though usually at a slower rate. The Bureau of Labor Statistics found union membership rates nationally have been declining for several decades, and now sit at 10.7 percent.
“In other states, you’ve seen a decline in the percentage of workers that are unionized,” Mathur said. “Unionization has been declining across the board. It’s happening in right-to-work states, it’s happening in states that haven’t adopted right-to-work laws.”
Mathur adds the law is likely not going to damage or destroy unions in any fundamental way. She is unaware of any union that had to leave a state or end because right-to-work was passed. Mathur suspects unions would use it as a rallying cry if that law caused something that catastrophic to happen.
“I’m sure they would have played that up a lot,” Mathur said. “I would have seen these unions had to leave because of a right-to-work law or something. But I haven’t seen it. I haven’t come across any stories like that.”
Mathur notes that it would also be unfair to blame the law if a union had to close its doors. The law gives workers a choice, so if there was a mass exodus of members, it may mean the union wasn’t providing a service they wanted. The law might even motivate unions to better serve workers as a way to maintain membership.
“It’s possible some unions didn’t get enough people to signup, and so they naturally died in some areas,” Mathur said. “But I think, again, to blame the law would be unfair because all its saying is employees have an option, and they can’t be forced to be part of a union.”
Those in support of the policy also claim it helps create jobs by making a state more business friendly. Madland counters that the argument is weak, but at least has some merit when it comes to the states. He adds the argument loses the little credibility it has when applied to the national level.
“The claims about helping to create jobs or create manufacturing are weaker at the national level than they are at the state level,” Madland said. “The idea that some company is going to locate to the United States because of its weak labor standards is really not credible.”
Mathur believes unions will remain an influential force, even if the law were to become national. Unions have a strong base across the country, even in right-to-work states. The Fight for $15 movement, for instance, is a union-backed initiative that has been at the forefront of the minimum wage debate.
“Even if we did have a federal right-to-work law, I don’t see unions completely dying in this country,” Mathur said. “I think there are still many issues that affect workers that they don’t feel are being heard by the federal government.”
The passage of the 1947 Taft-Hartley Act first allowed states to decide whether they want to be right-to-work or not. Americans overwhelming support the policy, despite its very adamant opponents. Gallup found in a 2014 poll the policy has 71 percent support.
The national right-to-work bill is likely to face fierce opposition as it works its way through the legislature. Nevertheless, Republicans hold a congressional majority, making its passage a possibility. President Donald Trump has already noted his support for right-to-work laws and is likely to sign such a bill.