Right to Work

The Irrelevance of "Right-to-Work" Laws

The battle over labor laws makes for great theater, but for the most part, theater is all it is.


Some people love right-to-work laws, and some people really hate them. The reaction in Michigan when Republican Gov. Rick Snyder signed one has been not only spirited but downright violent at times. The public was so fierce and divided that I was afraid the state might split into two separate parts. Oh, wait…

These laws have a mythic importance with advocates on the left and the right. One group sees them as a shimmering beacon of freedom against union bullying. In this view, they spur job creation, generate investment and free workers to choose whether to support unions.

Organized labor, on the other hand, sees them as a vicious union-busting ploy by corporate reactionaries. It contends that right-to-work laws ratchet down wages, weaken unions and promote mooching by workers who get the rewards of union representation while shirking the costs.

Both have a point about such measures. Compulsory union dues force unwilling employees to pay for something they may not want. Allowing workers to opt out, though, allows some to ride free at someone else's expense. Deciding which evil is worse is not a simple task.

But both sides of the debate are alike in one thing: blowing the issue out of proportion. For a long time, we've had a bloc of states with right-to-work laws and a bloc of states without. In both places, with few exceptions, the decline of unions has been steady. Regardless of whether policies like these get enacted or repealed, it's only going to continue.

It's not even clear that right-to-work laws by themselves make a meaningful difference in anything. Iowa is a right-to-work state, but its unionization rate is higher than that next door in Missouri, which is not. Kansas has a bigger union presence with right-to-work than adjacent Colorado has without.

One big study cited by supporters found that when Oklahoma passed one of these measures, it reduced union membership but had no effect on manufacturing employment or earnings. Idaho saw an increase in manufacturing jobs but none in per capita income. All this brings to mind what screenwriter William Goldman said is the crucial fact about the movie business: "Nobody knows anything."

Right-to-work laws are not the reason unionization has shrunk so dramatically. In 1980, 20 percent of private sector employees were union members. By 2011, the figure was less than 7 percent. Organized labor has done better among government workers, but even there, its share of the workforce has been flat.

Broad, powerful changes are behind all this. Industries where unions once reigned supreme have been battered by imports, domestic competition and deregulation—and as the industries have gotten weaker, so have the unions.

Back in the days when the Big Three owned the auto market, they could agree to generous terms with the United Auto Workers, knowing they could pass the extra costs on to consumers. That's no longer the case.

Big airlines used to enjoy protection from new competitors. Once commercial air travel was open to all, bankruptcies ensued, allowing high-cost carriers to scrap their labor contracts. More intense competition in the economy has deprived companies of leverage over prices—and unions of leverage over wages.

Public sector unions have long been shielded from such pressures. Governments as a rule don't go bankrupt, and taxpayers can always be compelled to pay any costs.

That was the theory, anyway. Today, as states and municipalities find revenues insufficient to cover the pay and pension promises made to government employees, these unions face a much tougher bargaining environment. Politicians in most places have no choice but to look for ways to cut personnel costs.

Even in the past, the theory didn't quite match up with actual events. States like Wisconsin, Ohio and Indiana have recently curbed public workers' collective bargaining rights, which conservatives blame for bloated benefits. The assumption is that states with strong public employee unions would provide more lavish pay to government workers.

But economist Sylvester Schieber, author of the book "The Predictable Surprise: The Unraveling of the U.S. Retirement System," has studied the issue at length and told me, "My results suggest that the extent of unionization of the public workforce has no significant effect on the generosity of public pensions at the state and local level." He was surprised.

Right-to-work laws or not, mandatory collective bargaining or not, inexorable forces have weakened unions and eroded their presence. The battle over labor laws makes for great theater, but for the most part, theater is all it is.

NEXT: They Don't Like It When It Happens to Them

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  1. i want to read Right-to-Work Laws’ views on the irrelevance of Steve Chapman

    1. Exactly what I was going to say, word for word.

  2. Chapman, do you believe in your Right-to-be-Read? Not the right to be published, as I am sure you would never twist the arm of some publishing outfit to print forcibly your drivel.

    I mean, do you believe that readers should be subjected and forced to read your tiresome diabtribes and generally piss poor musings, even if they don’t agree with them?

    1. You didn’t actually read this, did you? I figured everybody just went straight to the comments.

      My first thought on seeing the headline was, “Oh goody! Another thread on right-to-work!”

      1. The H&R Commenter’s Union states explicitly that one is not forced to read an article before commenting.

        For the record, I did read it. I was underwhelmed, to say the least.

        Chapman’s writing should be regulated like propofol is regulated.

        1. should propofol be regulated?

          1. I’m not sure which is more potentially lethal, propofol or Chapman’s screeds.

            That said, I don’t honestly know. I can see arguments for both views, not that I am quoting or paraphrasing Chapstick.

            I tend to side with regulation of it, as its indicated use is anaesthesia induction and most people aren’t qualified for surgery or anaesthesia induction.

            Even Dr. Conrad Murray fucked up its intended use using it as a somnolent, and the world has one less Jacko to show for it, not that I especially miss that overgrown, bleached pederast freakshow.

            (let the hurling of tomatoes and rubbish commence)

            1. Were you really expecting a defense of the Darwin award winning dance man on this site?

            2. As to your other point, people who don’t understand the underlying architecture of the internet down to the bit protocols of the most commonly used devices should not be commenting on the internet anymore than a non-professionally licensed doctor should have access to propofol.

              And always, fuck Chapman. He is a stain on Reason.

              1. Even if the only purpose of owning the pills is because I think they would look pretty in a display case, I don’t see the logic of restricting them. Did you know that some butterflies are poisonous to eat too?

                1. Even if the only purpose of owning the pills is because I think they would look pretty in a display case, I don’t see the logic of restricting them.

                  Will you absolve the manufacturer of any and all liability if/when you fuck up a dosage calculation or improperly start an IV?

                  Also, if you come to my ER (if you happen in be in Donets’k) and I find you OD’d on propofol, will you have any problem if I decided to deny you TX based on your running for a Darwin award? Will your spouse be quite so agreeable as well? (Assuming you have a Mrs. Killaz. I seem to recall you do…) And I am well aware some species of butterflied are toxic. Butterflies aren’t used to induce anaesthesia either.

                  (I don’t know if you have or haven’t started an IV, but IV site infiltration is a real bitch.)

                  Since EMTALA forces ER’s to treat any schmo, and risk has been collectivized, yes, society does get a say so in restriction of certain medications.

              2. As to your other point, people who don’t understand the underlying architecture of the internet down to the bit protocols of the most commonly used devices should not be commenting on the internet anymore than a non-professionally licensed doctor should have access to propofol.

                The internet doesn’t kill you, nor will my commenting on this blog, even if I do it “irresponsibly” (though getting the BanHammer might be equivalent to “death”) -D

        2. Chapman’s writing should be regulated like propofol is regulated.

          Bringing home the bacon

  3. I don’t know what the hell data “Economist” Sylvester Schieber was using, but it’s pretty widely recognized that salaries (adjusted for COLA) in RTW states are 175% of those in non-RTW states. Additionally (though this is likely correlation vice causation) violent crime is 65% less per capita in RTW states.

    Obviously he doesn’t account for federally funded (or matched) pensions in his cherry-picked numbers, which is why a state like Colorado is of course going to have ‘better’ pensions than a state like Kansas. Then again, considering the salary discrepancy, one could easily make up the difference in pensions with self placed investments.

    Then again, Chapman, like all leftists thinks people that actually work for a living are much too stupid to think of their future.

  4. Chapman writes with forked tongue.

    1. Does everyone else read forked with two syllables? Or just me?

      1. Not just you. I even say it with two syllables, with stress on the second syllable.

    2. Yes, but the second, though stressed, remains silent.

  5. Anything that annoys Union bosses as much as Right To Work laws can’t be all bad.

  6. For once I actually agree with Chapman’s premise – not, however, for the reasons he (sort of, kind of) cites.

    And, once again, seven words arranged in one of my favorite ways: “Steven Chapman is on vacation this week.”

  7. The effects of RTW laws are indeed exaggerated, but they’re not irrelevant either. There’s good evidence that these laws do indeed reduce unionization, which simple cross-state comparisons can’t pick up. Here are a few references:

    Steven E. Abraham and Paula B. Voos (2000), “Right-to-Work Laws: New Evidence from the Stock Market,” Southern Economic Journal 67 (2): 345-362

    David T. Ellwood and Glenn Fine (1987), “The Impact of Right-to-Work Laws on Union Organizing,” Journal of Political Economy 95 (2): 250-273

    William J. Moore (1998), “The Determinants and Effects of Right-to-Work Laws: A Review of the Recent Literature,” Journal of Labor Research 19 (3): 445-469

    Robert Krol and Shirley Svorny (2007), “Unions and Employment Growth: Evidence from State Economic Recoveries,” Journal of Labor Research 28: 525-535.

    On the moral dimension, IMO this is the argument to end all arguments about why RTW laws promote, not detract from, freedom of contract:

  8. Another feeble stab at relevance by Chapman.

    What would Nelson Muntz say?

  9. Ooh, goody! Another reason article decrying the very good as the enemy of the perfect.

  10. Here’s an idea, non-dues-paying employees shouldn’t be able to reap the benefits of union membership. Problem solved.

    1. Sure. Couple that with the removal of laws prohibiting the termination of employees because they belong to a union, and you’ll have two out the three legs of free association in the workplace.

      The third, of course, is removal of the requirement that a company do business with a union just because some of its employees want it to.

      1. Since when do constitutional rights extend to the workplace? You guys act like hardcore statists on this issue–willing to regulate private interactions for a social end. That end being “fuck the unions,” of course, an ideological position that apparently trumps libertarianism.

        1. If you propose repealing NLRA and all RTW laws together, I’m pretty sure you’d get near unanimous support on this blog.

        2. Since when do constitutional rights extend to the workplace?

          Since when do they not? Surely you aren’t going to argue that the Constitution stops at the factory door?

          You guys act like hardcore statists on this issue–willing to regulate private interactions for a social end.

          You, again, miss the point entirely. Note that I am calling for removal of all laws relating to the association of employers, unions, and employees: right-to-work, mandatory bargaining, etc. How is removing those laws “regulating private interactions for a social end”?

    2. Under present law, unions (except those “certified” with majority support) do have the option to bargain only for their own members. Most do not, because the ability to extort forced dues is more important to the union leaders than is any benefit they might win for the workers they “represent”. They know where their personal interests lie.

  11. This is getting a bit old. I really don’t want to listen to excuses about how RTW hurts the poor poor union shop where just over 50% of the employees at one point in time said that they wanted to force dues to be paid by the other 50% of the employees.

    Oh and also, theres never any mention that once a shop goes union shop it doesn’t go back. How many union shops have “silent” majorities that don’t want the union, but the dye is already cast.

    I have no problem with RTW laws, what I have problems with is compulsory dues and union shops. Your fawning articles against RTW hardly ever take any real accounting of how new employees are forced to pay dues as a price for having a job. That’s quite frankly, bullshit.

    New employees get interviewed by the company, they get selected by the company, then they get captured by the unions in order to take the job? That just plain fucking wrong. Cumpulsory membership in a union as a condition of employment is evil. Period. RTW may not be ideal, but it preserves personal freedom of association.

    I’d think a libertarian website would realize how important that concept is.

    This plethora of posts against RTW laws on Reason is just mind boggling. Its very much the world turned upside down. Mr. Chapman, you are just plain WRONG.

    1. So you have no problem with nondiscrimination laws, minimum wage laws, or other laws that interfere with the private business between employer and employees? Or are you just programmed to hate unions so much that freedom becomes secondary?

      1. So you have no problem with nondiscrimination laws, minimum wage laws, or other laws that interfere with the private business between employer and employees?

        Surely, Tony, you aren’t saying that every comment on a particular issue has to be accompanied by a comprehensive manifesto on all related issues. Are you?

  12. Those guys clearly know what is going on over there. WOw.

  13. Those damn non-dues paying scum. They “mooch” and “free-load” by going to work every day, without paying off their local union thug for the privilege. Somebody ought to sucker-punch them.

  14. Chapman is just picking up the torch dropped by Cathy Young. Barf.

    1. No, when Cathy Young writes that both sides are wrong or right or irrelevant, you’d better believe her because she has good reasons for so writing. Steve Chapman is just making noise, yet for some reason libertarian group mouthpieces continue to stick his mouth on there; it was the same with CATO’s daily “Byline” radio commentaries, where when it was Mr. Chapman’s turn, it was always, if I’d known I wouldn’t’ve bothered tuning in. Even when Julian Bond got on, you could at least have something solid to get peeved about.

  15. In light of this view on ‘free riders’, I have taken the opportunity to deposit a toaster oven on your porch. No no, do not thank me. Pay me. You owe me $87.99 for the toaster oven.

    You may be thinking, “But I don’t want a toaster oven!” Well let me tell you this, if people get to pick and choose whether or not they want a toaster oven, then I will not be able to provide equal toaster oven access for all the citizens in your community. My business model is designed around leaving toasters on people’s doors and charging them whether they want them or not. If I cannot charge the people who get toaster ovens just because they never asked for them or agreed to pay for them, why, the free riders will wreck my business model, and I will not be able to provide toaster ovens to all the people who do want one!

  16. The reason union membership declines over time is that the same jobs it makes sense to unionize make sense to mechanize. It takes time to design the machines that replace their jobs, so over time those jobs diminish along with their membership, leaving those it would be hard to mechanize, such as teachers.

  17. Why does Steve Chapman get published by Reason? Can any Reason editor give one single excuse for his continued presence?

  18. Wow, Chapman is getting me-level hate every time he posts. Of course I don’t do this for a living….

  19. Whatever happened to libertarianism? Power corrupts, it seems, and “The Party of Principal” has given up most of its principals to appeal to the brainwashed new generation. Have you guys ever wondered why the vast majority of you are less than thirty? Reason magazine has been out since 1968. Whatever happened to the older generation? My father was part of that generation, back when libertarians opposed anti-discrimination law as much as they opposed the war on drugs. Back when Steven Jay Gould was the “nazi” rather than Charles Murray. Back when sleeping with five guys in one week wasn’t “individualism” and criticizing it wasn’t “collectivism.” Back when gay marriage was not a valid reason to vote Democrat, and “personal responsibility” didn’t stop at the bedroom door. What we have now is a shallow libertianism that thinks that “gummint” is responsible for all the problems of society, and that personal behavior can never be criticized. How can this really compete with liberalism?

  20. Enacting or repealing “right to work” may have little effect on the labor situation at unionized plants, but that’s not where it makes a real difference. The real difference is in the nine-figure amounts of money unions extort from their opponents and spend on Democratic campaigns. The Democrats have dominated this country ever since the New Deal largely because of this extortion. That’s a huge difference it makes.

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