On Monday, Governor Scott Walker signed Right To Work legislation making Wisconsin the 25th state to have such a law on the books. Similar legislation is being considered in a number of other states amid the objections of unions and other groups who position it as an affront to worker’s rights which will erode wages and return the U.S. to the era of sweatshops and child labor.
Their arguments are preposterous, but unfortunately Right to Work is not well understood. So let’s start with what it actually means. The doctrine governing employment in the private sector where a union election has taken place and is the recognized representative of the workforce is called a Union Shop. In states that do not have Right to Work legislation, upon becoming the employee of a company where the workforce is represented by a union, an individual is required to become a member of the union. They must pay union dues and are subject to all the collectively bargained terms of employment outlined in the union contract. They also have the ability to participate on union committees, hold elected office and vote in union elections and contract ratification. In a state with Right to Work legislation, employees are not required to become dues paying members of the union, but the terms and conditions of employment contained in the union contract are still applied to all employees. Employees who do not elect to become dues paying members are not allowed to participate on union committees, hold elected office or vote in union elections and contract ratification. In practice, Right to Work is not nearly as disruptive as its critics would have you believe.
If an employer has a union workforce as the result of a union election under the requirements of the National Labor Relations Act , and Right to Work legislation is passed, the employer is still unionized. In order for an employer to become non-union, a process called decertification must take place. Decertification of a union in the private sector is highly technical, must originate with the employees with severely limited actions on behalf of the employer and may only occur during a specific window of time prior to the expiration of a collective bargaining agreement. Because of the complexity it is rarely done. In summary, Right to Work legislation does not decrease the number of unionized workplaces within a state simply by its passage.
Right to Work legislation does not allow employers to pay workers less money. An employee who accepts a job with an employer where the workforce is represented by a union, receives the same wages as the union employees and is subject to all collectively bargained benefits, such as healthcare. A non-union employer who operates a similar business to the union employer, requiring similar employees in the same area, is going to have to pay similar wages and benefits to attract qualified employees.
Returning to the days of sweatshops and child labor are also the worst type of hyperbole related to Right to Work. Unions were instrumental in pushing many of the laws that provide workplace protections today. However, the administration and enforcement of these protections have been codified into law at the federal, state and local levels that apply to all employers in the private sector whether employees are represented by a union or not.
For example, the Fair Labor Standards Act established the 40 hour workweek and overtime rules for certain categories of employees. This protection has been augmented by many states and enhanced further by employer policies. It is administered by the Wage and Hour division of the Department of Labor, not labor unions. Similarly, workplace safety is governed for all private employers by the Occupational Safety and Health Act which is administered by OSHA. Child labor is addressed in a number of ways including compulsory public education and laws prohibiting it. The idea that this entire body of legislation and network of government agencies will somehow be rolled back by a civilized society at the federal, state and local level is ridiculous.
Once explained, Right to Work does not sound as devastating for workers as you may have thought. So why all the fuss? The answer can be summed up in two words: Density and Dues. These are very important to the political and administrative machines of unions.
Density is percentage of the workforce who belong to a union. Union membership has been declining for decades and according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics fell from 11.9% to 6.6% in the private sector between 1983 and 2014. Right to Work can affect density as it gives workers the choice to opt out of membership. If density continues to decline it may affect private sector unions political power.
The ability to opt out of union membership also negatively impacts the unions financial strength making it more difficult for them to organize new employers and make political contributions. In states where union membership and dues are compulsory, unweighted average dues per member between 2005 and 2013 were $992 per year. This number falls to $752 in Right to Work states where unions collect less money because membership is not a condition of employment.
Unions are taking a public position against Right to Work in order to preserve their base and continue to force compulsory membership in the private sector. We are in an era where employers are sophisticated in delivering programs and policies that discourage union organization, all workers will be subject to the disaster that is the Affordable Care Act and unions have not been able to demonstrate they can outpace the market with average negotiated wage increases. For example in recent years, negotiated annual increases have been 2-3% in the manufacturing sector. Gallup polls have also shown that union employees display lower overall job satisfaction than their union counterparts.
The real problem confronting unions is developing a value proposition that is compelling in the current workplace environment and allows them to increase the number of workers who want to join their ranks. Employers have learned that robust communication, safety and employee involvement programs benefit them financially through years of management study and implement them out of invested self interest. The gains in wages and benefits that collective bargaining delivers are not the key differentiation they once were. Finally, many of the hard won worker protections are part of our workplace institutions. What role does this leave for unions in large portions of the private sector? I have not seen a compelling response, but limiting the choice of individual workers through continued compulsory membership is not the answer.