Over the weekend, Kentucky lawmakers and Governor Bevin moved swiftly to fulfill one of the most repeated campaign promises of the election, make Kentucky a right-to-work state. Making the issue a top priority, lawmakers achieved this goal after just one week of session, with the Senate passing the measure and the Governor signing it during a rare weekend legislative session. The legislation is effective immediately and represents a win for both Kentucky’s workers and the economy overall.
Right-to-work (RTW) laws are simply those that prohibit compulsory union membership as a condition of employment—meaning it is illegal for a company to force its employees to belong to a union or be terminated. Contrary to some opponents of right-to-work laws, they do not prohibit labor unions, force union members to quit a union or prohibit union membership in any way. Instead, right-to-work laws simply protect a worker’s right to freely choose whether or not to become a member of a labor union—without their job depending on it. Kentucky’s workers will join with 26 other states and enjoy this new choice.
To many observers, Kentucky lawmakers ensuring worker freedom will not come as a surprise. The past several years have been a boon for state legislation that supports worker freedom. Indiana and Michigan became right-to-work states in 2012, followed by Wisconsin in 2015 and West Virginia in 2016. With the adoption of a right-to-work law by West Virginia, more than half of all US states opted to protect worker freedom rather than continue forced unionization. The economic pressure from several regional neighbors adopting right-to-work laws also puts remaining forced unionization states at a significant disadvantage when it comes to economic competitiveness. The economic advantage of passing a right-to-work law was certainly not ignored by the voters of Kentucky—and with good reason.
Over a 35 year period, from 1977 to 2012, states with a right-to-work law in place saw jobs grow by 105.3 percent—more than double the 50 percent growth experienced by the forced-unionism states. Furthermore, data from the Bureau of Economic Analysis shows in addition to seeing significant job growth, right-to-work states’ personal income grew by 91 percent, compared to personal income growth of only 72 percent over the same period in states without a right-to-work law. The top seven states for private sector job growth from 1995 to 2015 have all been sates with a right-to-work law. Without a doubt, passing a right-to-work law is the best action state lawmakers could take when looking to boost their economic potential without costing taxpayers a dime.
In addition to the clear economic benefit, right-to-work laws remain very popular—with more than a quarter of current union members agreeing with worker freedom. A recent survey by public policy organizations participating in “National Employee Freedom Week” found that 28.7 percent of union members reported they would end their contributions to their labor union if they could do so without losing their job or any other sort of penalty. These results are unsurprising given the popularity of right-to-work laws among the general population. A 2014 Gallup survey found 71 percent of people would support a right-to-work law, while just 22 percent would oppose one.
While Kentucky lawmakers have been the first to embrace worker freedom in 2017, it is unlikely they will be the last. For the first time ever, more Americans now live in right-to-work states than not. New political landscapes in Missouri and New Hampshire also make such reforms possible there as well. Missouri Governor Eric Greitens has made passing a right-to-work law a priority and New Hampshire Governor Chris Sununu has signaled he will sign a right-to-work bill if the legislature puts one on his desk. As more and more states realize the economic potential of adopting a right-to-work law, ensuring that workers have the freedom to choose whether or not they would like to join a union will be increasingly difficult to avoid.
At the time of the original posting, the Missouri and New Hampshire governors had not yet been inaugurated. This post has been updated to reflect that change.