Sep 5, 2022 - Economy

The lasting impact of "right to work" laws

Data: NCSL; Map: Kavya Beheraj and Nicki Camberg/Axios

Twenty-seven states have "right to work" laws in place that prevent private-sector unions from collecting fees from all members.

Why it matters: Unions have mostly adapted to these laws, and their popularity has died down since the 2010s. However, these laws remain a headwind as union organizing efforts pick up now, labor proponents say.

  • They also serve to keep wages lower for all workers in the states where they've been enacted.

Details: For decades, the laws have been a way to depress union membership and divert resources away from bargaining, said Robin Clark-Bennett, director of the labor center at the University of Iowa College Of Law.

  • "When wages are lowered for union workers, it also means that competing non-union employers are able to pay lower wages," she said. She pointed to research from the Economic Policy Institute that found wages in right-to-work states were 3.1% lower than non-right-to-work states after accounting for differences in the cost of living.
  • Another study found that states with these laws see lower political participation than states without them, as well as reduced support for the Democratic Party specifically.

Missouri voters overwhelmingly voted against a state version of the law in 2018, and no law has passed since. "It's become an increasingly unpopular policy," said Elise Gould, an economist at the Economic Policy Institute.

Of note: The Pro Act, which passed the House last year, would override these laws but hasn't gained any traction in the Senate.

Flashback: In 2018, a Supreme Court decision called Janus v. AFSCME essentially made the whole country "right to work" for public sector unions — and many predicted apocalyptic consequences for those unions.

  • So far those dire predictions have not come to pass, as unions stepped up organizing efforts to prevent membership from falling off a cliff, a 2020 Bloomberg investigation found.
  • "We have to make sure to put more work into signing folks up," said Rob Baril, president of SEIU 1199NE Healthcare, a public sector union in Connecticut. Members often get mailings from anti-union groups encouraging them to stop paying dues.
  • "Unions at least are realizing that with or without right to work, they've got to pay more attention" to keeping members engaged, said Jon Hiatt, a labor lawyer at the Solidarity Center, who spent more than 20 years at the AFL-CIO.
  • He noted that the decision galvanized public sector unions to double down on organizing.

Zoom out: The laws have racist roots, first gaining traction among southern segregationists who feared unions would unite working-class whites with Blacks, as this piece in Dissent lays out.

  • “In our glorious fight for civil rights, we must guard against being fooled by false slogans, such as ‘right to work.’ It is a law to rob us of our civil rights and job rights," Martin Luther King said in 1961 about these laws.
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