Long before the COVID-19 pandemic, our economy was already struggling with an alarming divide between haves and have-nots. As economists have detailed this widening gulf on important outcomes like worker earnings and access to health care, they have also detailed a parallel trend: declining numbers of workers represented by unions.
This is not coincidental.
Strong unions have always moderated the inherent power imbalance between employers and workers — protecting health and safety rights, bargaining for better wages and benefits, and promoting civic engagement. These core union activities are financed through membership dues and fees paid by the workers they represent.
When unions are weaker, bosses have more power — and more resources to pocket for themselves.
By prohibiting clauses in union contracts that ensure all workers represented by the union pay for the services they receive, so-called “right-to-work” laws are designed to deliver precisely this outcome.
These laws have nothing to do with anyone’s right to work. Instead, they are about the balance of power in a workplace. In “right-to-work” states, unions end up with less money to advocate for working families.
Twenty-seven U.S. states currently have such laws on the books. Twenty-three states, including Montana, do not.
In a recent study we compared economic, social, and civic outcomes between the two types of states — quantifying what it means to have a “right-to-work” law — and a policy framework that tips the scales of power even more in favor of the boss.
Specifically, it means lower wages, slower wage growth, fewer workers with health insurance and retirement security, fewer skilled trade apprentices and workers with bachelor’s degrees, more on-the-job fatalities, more poverty, more consumer debt, a shorter life expectancy, and lower levels of voter participation.
Notably, Montana currently outperforms the average “right-to-work” state on each of these core metrics. This is not an accident, but rather a function of more workers being able to bargain with a stronger voice over the terms and conditions of their employment.
This strong voice is especially critical for essential workers like firefighters, police officers, nurses, and teachers. Yet the data shows that these workers face a pay penalty ranging from 5% to 16%, on average, in so-called “right-to-work” states.
Of course, “right-to-work” proponents often push back with the fiction of trickle-down economics — claiming that when the balance of power shifts in favor of bosses, those bosses will invest more in creating additional jobs.
This claim simply is not borne out by the data. In fact, during the decade-long economic expansion that followed the Great Recession, the economies of so-called “right-to-work” states grew 3% slower, on average, than the alternative. Worker productivity is also 17% lower in “right-to-work” states
These broader economic impacts are not surprising. It certainly doesn’t take a Ph.D. in economics to understand that hourly workers living paycheck-to-paycheck are more likely to spend a few extra dollars of income back in the economy than their bosses.
Some of the wealthiest corporate interests in the country have been lobbying to enact “right-to-work” laws for decades. And while they have been successful in some state legislatures, their success has also given researchers copious data to utilize in evaluating the extent to which their efforts have produced desirable economic outcomes for workers and the taxpaying public.
If we have learned anything from the events of the past month, it is that we should resist allowing the partisan or financially motivated passions of the moment to blur the line between fact and fiction.
The fact is that “right-to-work” laws mean lower wages, slower economic growth, less access to health insurance, a shorter life expectancy, and deep cuts to the pay of essential workers. Any claims to the contrary are pure fiction.
Dr. Robert Bruno is director of the Project for Middle Class Renewal at the University of Illinois-Urbana Champaign and Frank Manzo IV is the policy director of the Midwest Economic Policy Institute. Read their latest study on the impact of Right to Work Laws here.