Skip to content Skip to footer

What’s Wrong with the “Right to Work”?

Who really benefits from

A protest against "right to work" in Lansing, Michigan, December 11, 2012. (Photo: mistere213)

In 2012, Indiana and Michigan joined the ranks of the “right to work” states. They joined 22 other mostly southern and western states. All 11 southern states are “right to work.”

Unfortunately, living in a “right to work” state doesn’t mean that you have a right to work. It doesn’t even mean that you have a right not to join a union. No one ever has to join a union.

It means that you don’t have to pay for union representation in collective bargaining even when the majority of the workers in their company have democratically voted to be represented by the union.

The union still bargains for you. It helps you get a good salary, paid holidays and a health plan. Members of the union sometimes even go out on strike to make sure you get these benefits.

But when it’s time to pay the piper, the piper pays you. If you have a grievance under a union-negotiated contract, the union has to pursue your grievance. You get all the benefits of union coverage without any of the costs of union membership.

Social scientists call this the free-rider problem. The free-rider problem occurs whenever someone can gain all the benefits of an activity without paying any of the costs.

The classic free-rider problem is littering. Littering is great – for the litterer. It’s terrible for everyone who has to look at the litter, smell it or pick it up.

Union dues are like taxes. No one likes to pay taxes, but somebody has to. If you can be a free-rider while everybody else pays taxes, that’s a great deal for you.

It’s not such a great deal for everybody else.

Over time, “right to work” laws destroy unions. That’s their real purpose. It’s no coincidence that 19 of the 20 states with union membership rates under 8 percent are all “right to work” states.

“Right to work” legislation isn’t driven by a groundswell of disgruntled union members chafing under union oppression. Workers who don’t want a union can disband their union at any time.

“Right to work” legislation is invariably driven by employers, industry associations and lobbyists. Employers love “right to work,” because it really means “right to work for less.”

It doesn’t take an MBA to figure out the “right to work” financials. The three states with union membership rates of 4 percent or less? North Carolina, South Carolina, Georgia. Median hourly wages: $15.16, $14.45, $15.25.

The three states with union membership rates of 20 percent or more? New York, Alaska, Hawaii. Median wages: $19.02, $20.65, $17.44.

Proponents of “right to work” laws like to point out the fact that employment has grown much faster over time in “right to work” states than in union-friendly states. Unfortunately for everyone except employers, they’re right.

Due to their lower wages, “right to work” states steal manufacturing and distribution jobs away from union-friendly states. Worse, their “right to work” laws drive down wages for everyone, not just employees in these highly-mobile industries.

It’s a race to the bottom as any business that can move across state lines moves to the states with the lowest wages and easiest regulations.

Such beggar-thy-neighbor development strategies are bad for everyone: bad for people in the job-receiving states (low wages), bad for people in the job-losing states (unemployment) and bad for the United States (reduced productivity due to economically unnecessary relocations).

Of course, they’re good for employers, industry associations and lobbyists, who skim a fortune off the couple of dollars lost every single hour by every single employee who has the “right to work.”

If we’re going to have “right to work,” then why not “right to live”? Wouldn’t it be great to have the right to live in any state without having to pay state taxes?

Let the “right to work” states put their (tax) money where their mouths are. Why should you have to “join” a state just because you live there?

The stakes have never been higher (and our need for your support has never been greater).

For over two decades, Truthout’s journalists have worked tirelessly to give our readers the news they need to understand and take action in an increasingly complex world. At a time when we should be reaching even more people, big tech has suppressed independent news in their algorithms and drastically reduced our traffic. Less traffic this year has meant a sharp decline in donations.

The fact that you’re reading this message gives us hope for Truthout’s future and the future of democracy. As we cover the news of today and look to the near and distant future we need your help to keep our journalists writing.

Please do what you can today to help us keep working for the coming months and beyond.