The future of right-to-work laws

Right-to-work laws first came about in response to the National Labor Relations Act (NLRA),  which authorized labor unions to act as workers’ “exclusive bargaining representatives.” This meant individuals were not able to negotiate their contracts separately, even if they didn’t belong to the union. 

After the passage of the NLRA, unions began negotiating contracts that made paying union dues a condition of a worker’s employment contract. States that enacted right-to-work  statutes to counter union power saw this as ensuring workers an important right: freedom to choose. 

Recently right-to-work laws have been under attack through various bills proposed at a state and federal level. 

One such bill introduced in the U.S. House is the Protecting the Right to Organize (PRO) Act. It was originally proposed in 2019 and would have effectively abolished all state Right to Work laws. Many free market organizations, including the Goldwater Institute, wrote a letter openly opposing the bill saying that, “invalidating these laws would hurt workers and employers, but would provide more dues to unions.”  

The bill has returned in 2021 with a number of changes that erode states’ right-to-work laws.

Glenn Spencer, the U.S. Chamber of Commerce senior vice president of the Employment Policy Division said the bill “strips workers of their privacy, threatens private ballots, imposes California’s disastrous independent contractor test, jeopardizes employers’ right to free speech, and threatens the loss of a job should workers choose not to pay union dues.” 

“While claiming to be pro-worker, we firmly believe today’s legislation is a grab-bag of harmful policies that would deprive millions of workers of their privacy and fundamentally alter our nation’s system of labor relations,” he said.

Missouri’s union blues

Protection against forced union membership is offered in 28 out of the 50 states in the form of right-to-work legislation. 

States like Missouri have had ongoing battles in their legislature as they attempt to provide the opportunity for workers to choose whether to join a union membership in different work environments such as construction. 

This issue was slated to be on the Missouri ballot in 2020. The state’s Republican Party submitted the ballot initiative in December 2018. In February of 2019, the secretary of state approved the initiative for signature gathering. However, petitioners did not submit signatures by the deadline. 

Economic competitiveness

Being a right-to-work state benefits an economy through more outside investment, lower cost of living, and higher economic productivity. 

According to Jeffrey Eisenach of NERA Economic Consulting, the economic benefits experienced by the 27 right-to-work (RTW) states include:

  • Between 2001 and 2016 private sector employment growth of 27 percent, which was 12 percent higher than non-RTW;
  • An annual unemployment rate that was 0.4 percentage points lower than non-RTW states. In terms of jobs, if non-RTW states had the same employment rate, 249,000 more people would be employment;
  • Output in RTW states grew 38 percent from 2001 to 2016, whereas non-RTW reached 29 percent growth output;
  • Another staple of economic productivity, real manufacturing output rose by over 30 percent in RTW states from 2001 to 2016, compared with 21 percent in non-RTW states.

The AFL-CIO, a federation of 55 American unions, cited right to work laws as a way to lower workers’ wages. However, while the wage averages in right-to-work states are lower, the average cost of living in right-to-work states is below the national average as well. 

Arizona’s experience

In the state of Arizona, organized labor only accounted for 5.7 percent of wage and salary workers in 2019. Since 1989, when the data for states became widely available, Arizona’s union membership rates have stayed below the national average. 

As of November of 1946, the Arizona Constitution has had a provision for the state to be a right-to-work state. 

The constitutional amendment reads, “No person shall be denied the opportunity to obtain or retain employment because of non-membership in a labor organization, nor shall the State or any subdivision thereof, or any corporation, individual or association of any kind enter into any agreement, written or oral, which excludes any person from employment or continuation of employment because of non-membership in a labor organization.” 

Proposition 4 was an initiated constitutional amendment, which officially prohibited the requirement of labor organization membership for a person to be employed. The amendment passed in the 1946 general election by 55 percent. 

State lawmakers’ support for right-to-work policy derives from the economic benefits that are associated with these laws, including more attraction of outside investment. 

Kenneth Troske, an economics professor at the University of Kentucky said, “It sends a signal to businesses that, as a state, we are trying to make ourselves more open and friendly and [as] flexible as possible for businesses that want to locate here.”

The status of Arizona’s right to work could soon be up for debate again. With the defeat of pro-right-to-work Senator Martha McSally, there is a chance that Congress has the majority needed to pass the aforementioned PRO Act. 

As the National Right to Work Committee Vice President, Mary King said, “Indeed, the Senate could potentially be Right to Work’s last firewall against not just the PRO Act, but an entire host of Big Labor power grabs.”

Among the PRO Act’s 209 cosponsors are Arizona Representatives Ruben Gallego, Raul Grijalva, Ann Kirkpatrick, Tom O’Halleran and Greg Stanton.

Taylor Hersch

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