As the number of public union worker members has increased and has now surpassed the number of private sector union members, organized labor’s strategy has shifted from the use of strikes to one of political advocacy and money. Most of the action is at the state level since there are more local and state public worker union members than federal ones. Thus, organized labor has taken to the streets, state houses and courts of states to advance their agenda with some serious setbacks most importantly in Michigan and Wisconsin- two states known for organized labor. In essence, their strategy has been to put the breaks to overall union membership declines by advancing public worker union influence and membership. Removing those breaks or weakening them has led to frustration and a backlash by organized labor. The most famous of these instances was the demonstrations and eventual recall effort against Governor Scott Walker in Wisconsin which ended in dismal humiliation for unions. The reason was not Koch brother money; it was the tax payer and the voter flexing their political muscles which is something unions and the Left fail to understand and cannot fathom.
There are several purported reasons for the decline in private sector unions: globalization, a move from labor-intensive industry to capital driven industry, foreign imports and consumer choice, automation, and a move from a manufacturing based economy to a service-sector economy. Most likely, it is not one single cause but a combination of all of these. Along the way, union membership has declined. In 1983, 23.4% of wage earners were union members. In 2013, that number stood at 11.3%. Organized labor will tell you that is because there has been a concerted conservative effort to demonize unions. And nowhere are they more adamant than in the misinformation spread regarding right-to-work (RTW) states. Considering the fact that their key political allies have not exactly been “allies” only further complicates the picture. For example, when they held majorities in both the House and the Senate and had a President, Democrats could not advance a cause near and dear to organized labor: card check legislation, perhaps the most undemocratic action ever proposed. How labor and the Democrats respond to the impending 40% excise tax on so-called “cadillac” health care plans- specific to unions- remains to be seen. One can surmise that should a Democrat occupy the White House in 2018 when it goes into effect, there will be a delay or waiver.
Nowhere is union hypocrisy and misinformation more evident than with a discussion of RTW states. In an effort to reign in the influence of unions and the accompanying corruption at the time, Congress passed the Taft-Hartley Act in 1948. To address union concerns regarding what is called the “free rider” problem, the law allowed unions to collect dues from non-union members if they benefited from a collective bargaining contract. For example, if a non-union member working in a unionized workplace was fired, the union was obligated to defend that worker. The worker was expected to pay for this service since they obtained a benefit from the collective bargaining contract. This was called an agency fee and Taft-Hartley clearly allowed unions to exact this fee and the employer would deduct it from the employee’s pay check every week. However, the law allowed a loophole whereby states could also do away with agency fees if they so chose. Several did and it is these states that are today called right-to-work states.
RTW status does not ban unions. It does not ban unions from exacting dues if they go to pensions, health care programs, or administrative costs of the union or collective bargaining agreement. It does prohibit unions from exacting fees from paychecks for organizing efforts and political advocacy. It is more in keeping with democratic principles of free speech and association enshrined in the Bill of Rights. Because you benefit from a union should not infer you support causes of the Democratic Party, yet that is exactly the reality in non-RTW states.
Further, unions misinform about RTW states in direct contravention of economic fact. The Bureau of Labor Statistics notes that 18 of the 25 states with the highest job growth are RTW states while 19 of the 25 lowest job growth states are non-RTW states. Unlike the Left, conservatives acknowledge that RTW status alone does not explain the entire phenomena and that favorable tax policies or an overall business environment or even things like transportation infrastructure also influence a business’ decision to relocate in a particular state. In that regard, unions are correct that RTW status is not the sole factor in business location, but they totally ignore its influence. Considering that labor costs are a major influence on these decisions, it is ludicrous to totally ignore this factor as unions assert.
There are other economic metrics that distinguish RTW from non-RTW states. For example, in one decade surveyed, non-farm payroll increased 12.9% compared to 6% in non-RTW states, the poverty rate in RTW states was 8.5% versus 10%, patents produced in RTW states out-performed non-RTW states 33-11%, growth in real income was 26% versus 19%, and the number of workers covered by an employer-based health care plan increased 8.5% in RTW states versus a dismal 0.7% in non-RTW states.
Ah, but labor will tell you that workers make, on average, $1,500 less per year than their counterparts in non-RTW states. Objectively speaking, that is an economic fact. But, it fails to address the differences in the cost of living among states. Using the union figures, in 2012 the per capita income in Texas was $37,098 compared to New York’s $47,852. Texas is a RTW state while New York is not. Factoring in the cost of living differences between New York and Texas we discover that the Texan’s $37,098 had $49,000 worth of purchasing power in New York. To the union, they are comparing apples with oranges and treating the issue as if all fruits are equal.
In closing, being a right to work state does not prohibit unions nor thwart union membership. Instead, it gives a worker- the supposed beneficiary of unionization- greater choice and greater say in their union participation. It is simply a means by which a person covered by a collective bargaining agreement can have a voice in how the union is run and to which causes their hard-earned money can be directed. Besides not being anti-union per se, it is considerably more democratic than any model organized labor or the misinformed, hypocritical rubes in the Democratic Party can put forth.
In part 3, I will discuss public worker unions in more detail.