Another year begins, and with it, many state legislatures go back into session. In Indiana and New Hampshire, that's meant that Republicans are resuming anti-union campaigns they couldn't finish off last year. Specifically, Republican legislators in both states are pushing so-called "right to work" bills. In New Hampshire, where a law that would have affected all workers in the state failed to get past the governor's veto in November, the state House just passed a similar bill affecting only state workers, while in Indiana, Republicans are rushing to get a comprehensive "right to work" bill through quickly. The NFL Players Association opposes the bill, so Republicans want to get this done before the Super Bowl brings some high-profile pro-worker voices to Indianapolis in a few weeks.
But what is "right to work" and why are Republicans so determined to pass it? Briefly, these laws say that union members have to pay the costs of representing their coworkers who choose not to join a union. (Less briefly here.) Under federal law, no one can ever be made to join a union, but in states without so-called "right to work" laws, if there's a union bargaining contracts for you and representing you in grievances, you have to pay a "fair share" or representation fee to cover those costs. What Indiana and New Hampshire Republicans want to do is to allow non-union members to be free riders, getting the representation their union coworkers pay for. Dean Baker bluntly describes this as an added tax on union membership.
As the New York Times' Steven Greenhouse recently noted, people do take that opportunity to be free riders:
Henry Farber, a labor economist at Princeton, said right-to-work laws, by allowing “free riders,” shrink union treasuries. One study found that the portion of free riders in right-to-work states ranged from 9 percent in Georgia to 39 percent in South Dakota.That (and, perhaps, an anti-union environment related to the passage of such a law) leads to a decline in union organizing and membership:
In another study, David T. Ellwood, the dean of the Kennedy School of Government at Harvard, and Glenn A. Fine, a former Justice Department official, found that in the five years after states enacted such legislation, the number of unionization drives dropped by 28 percent, and in the following five years by an added 12 percent. Organizing wins fell by 46 percent in the first five years and 30 percent the next five. Over all, they found, right-to-work laws, beyond other factors, caused union membership to drop 5 percent to 10 percent.Proponents of the laws claim that they may be bad for unions, but they're good for workers. Frequently, they claim that employers would be more likely to move to an RTW state—though they never seem to have any examples of employers who have said anything of the sort. In fact, in an Economic Policy Institute report, labor scholar Gordon Lafer notes that a National Right to Work Committee presentation in favor of bringing RTW to Indiana:
[...] quotes an executive of Fantus, a site-location firm, warning that “approximately 50 percent of our clients … do not want to consider locations unless they are in right-to-work states” (National Right to Work Committee 2011). The committee neglects to mention that the quote is based on a report from 1975, and that by 1986, the firm’s executive vice president reported that the figure had fallen to 10 percent (Warren 1986).More recent measures of what factors make states attractive to employers find RTW ranking very low. Lafer finds numerous other examples of the National Right to Work Committee and the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC) torturing facts in support of their claim that RTW will create jobs in Indiana. For instance, they tout job growth in Texas without acknowledging that "the state’s job growth has come entirely through government jobs, while the private sector shrank," and show why it's important to pay attention to both median and mean, using the mean in cases where a single high-performing RTW state makes it look like RTW states as a group perform well. (Notre Dame labor scholar Marty Wolfson identifies still more dubious statistics (PDF) coming from RTW proponents.) On the flip side, Lafer details how Oklahoma's adoption of RTW in 2001 did not produce anything like an economic miracle in the state, something I've discussed in the past.
While RTW laws don't create jobs, they do lower wages and benefits. A study by Elise Gould and Heidi Shierholz found that, controlling for cost of living, workers in RTW states average $1,500 a year less than workers in free bargaining states and make it less likely that workers get benefits like pensions and health care. Those effects hold for both union and non-union workers.
The only workers for whom there's anything in this legislation are the people who work in a union workplace and would rather not pay for the work the union does bargaining contracts and handling grievances. Even for them, RTW is only a short-term benefit, since over time it weakens the services they're not paying for. But the degree to which attempts to sell RTW as pro-worker are based on misrepresentation and abuse of statistics tells the story: Republican legislators and groups like ALEC push RTW for corporate power, for weakening unions, for everything but the fictional benefit to working people.