The Wisconsin state legislature on March 6 passed a right-to-work bill that Gov. Scott Walker, a Republican openly opposed to collective bargaining, has said he’ll sign. The new measure makes Wisconsin the 25th U.S. state with right-to-work legislation. So what, exactly, is right-to-work and how does it affect unions?
What is “right-to-work” or RTW?
The term “right-to-work” is a misnomer that has nothing to do with a person’s right to find or accept employment. Such legislation doesn’t give anyone an actual right-to-work. Instead it makes it harder for workers to have a union in their workplace.
RTW legislation prohibits labor unions from negotiating union security clauses with an employer. These clauses ensure that anyone who works in a union-represented workplace contributes to the cost of the union’s activities, including the negotiation and enforcement of a contract. RTW laws deny this security to unions and set up a statewide welfare system where people don’t have to pay for the union benefits they receive.
When workers who receive union benefits stop making contributions that support the union, the union itself can collapse and ultimately disappear. Without the security of a union contract, workers lose any guarantees of wage increases, health care benefits or retirement security.
Why do certain lawmakers propose and pass RTW bills?
Illinois Gov. Bruce Rauner and Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker are two recent examples of top legislators who support RTW laws. Both governors claim RTW gives workers more personal freedoms in the workplace, while the laws make states more attractive to big business.
RTW proponents, including Gov. Rauner, often say RTW allows employees to choose not to join a union. But this is a misconception. Under federal law, it is already illegal to force anyone to join a union as a condition of employment. RTW doesn’t change or enhance that.
The primary reason big businesses and corporations might want to open shop in RTW states is because RTW laws weaken unions and the labor movement. When fewer unions exist and fewer workers support unionization, employers do not have to collectively bargain with their workers. Corporations can get away with paying workers less and refusing to give workers necessary benefits, like health care, pensions, vacation time and paid holidays.
Unions help to raise the standard of living for all workers. When unions are weakened and their ranks reduced, all workers suffer. Unions are in workplaces because a majority of those workers have chosen union representation. Whether or not they support the union, all workers in a unionized workplace benefit from the gains the union makes and the rights the union establishes. RTW laws shift the balance of power away from workers and into the hands of employers.
Do RTW laws actually attract more business and spur economic growth?
Let’s look at the numbers:
- According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, workers in states with RTW laws make $5,971 less per year than workers in other states.
- According to the U.S. Census Bureau, poverty rates are higher in states with RTW laws. The average poverty rate in RTW states is 14.8 percent overall and 20.2 for children. In states without RTW, the average poverty rate is 13.1 percent overall and 18.3 for children.
- Of the 12 states paying workers the lowest wages, including Iowa and Indiana, eight of those states have RTW laws.
- Seven of the 10 states with the highest unemployment rates have RTW.
- All 12 states that pay workers the highest wages, including Illinois, do not have RTW laws.
So what do these numbers tell us? Big businesses that move to states with RTW laws are all but guaranteed to pay workers less and discourage employees from forming, joining or supporting unions.
What is fair share?
As was previously clarified, laws already exist nationwide that allow workers the freedom to choose whether or not to join a union. In some workplaces that are already unionized, if a worker chooses to take a job but does not want to join the union, he or she can be obligated to pay a “fair share” fee.
Fair share is less than the amount of full union dues and does not support all of the activities of the union. Instead, the fee pays for the worker’s fair share of benefits he or she will still receive from the union. Even though the worker has chosen not to belong to the union, the fact that he or she works in a union environment means the worker will receive the stronger wages and benefits the union has achieved.
Fair share fees ensure equality in a unionized workplace. If a union election is held among 100 workers at a company and 60 percent vote for the union and 40 percent vote against the union, the union is still required to represent, support and protect all workers. Fair share ensures those who don’t want to be in the union still pay at least a small fee for the rights and benefits they’ll receive.
What could happen if Illinois passes RTW laws?
In January, credit rating agency Moody’s released an economic report for the State of Illinois. In the report, Moody’s stated, “It is debatable whether or not right-to-work laws enhance economic growth, even in circumstances where they do help attract businesses to the state. Laws that hurt unions shift the balance from employees to owners. They tend to erode wages and lead to a more uneven distribution of the gains of economic growth.”
In a policy brief from the University of Illinois, researchers concluded the following consequences are likely if Illinois passes RTW legislation:
- Employment would increase by 0.4-0.55 percent, but continued increases would disappear after a few years.
- Hourly wages for African-American workers would drop by 2-9 percent.
- Hourly wages for Hispanic workers would drop by as much as 8 percent.
- Hourly wages for women would drop by 2-7 perecent.
- Approximately 107 additional Illinois workers would die in workplace accidents in the construction sector over 10 years. The rate of workplace deaths is 54.4 percent higher in states with RTW laws, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics.
Gov. Bruce Rauner has proposed “right-to-work zones,” so what are those?
Conservative policy groups like the American Legislative Exchange Council have pushed for RTW zones across the country. In states like Illinois that have predominately Democratic legislatures, Republican lawmakers have a harder time passing statewide RTW bills. Creating RTW zones would allow Gov. Rauner to bypass state legislation and enact localized RTW laws in specific cities, counties and municipalities.
In February, Rauner said, “I want local voters to control the nature of collective bargaining. I want [voters] to decide what the union can collectively bargain.” Establishing these zones would have the same effect as statewide RTW laws, but on a smaller scale, weakening union members and all workers in communities that may have a higher percentage of unionization.
Ultimately, the passage of any law that gives individuals who are not employed at a specific workplace the power to determine collective bargaining rights for the workers inside that workplace would be unconstitutional. Unions in Illinois, including the Teamsters, would not hesitate to challenge such deceptive practices.