Labor Unions

Do Right-to-Work Laws Work?

An interesting study on the effect of right-to-work laws on union members


During my morning commute I used to pass an anti-"right to work" billboard. The specifics would vary, but the message was always the same: Right-to-work laws are bad. One message was the proposed "Workplace Freedom Act" was a "cancer" on the working class, another featured a hammer and sickle.

Right-to-work laws may well be bad for union leadership, but are they bad for unionized workers? A recent paper in the Journal of Law and Economics by Christos Andreas Makridis of MIT suggests not. Here's the abstract:

This paper investigates the effects of state right-to-work (RTW) laws on individuals' well-being and economic sentiment. Using licensed microdata from Gallup between 2008 and 2017, this paper finds that the adoption of RTW laws is associated with a .029 SD and a .041 SD increase in individuals' life satisfaction and economic sentiment, respectively. A difference-in-differences estimator suggests that these improvements are concentrated among union workers. These results are robust to entropy balancing and border-pair approaches. Moreover, these improvements in well-being are consistent with an increase in competition among unions, which prompts them to provide higher-quality services that are valued by their members.

Interesting stuff to be sure.

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  1. Sorry; studies with .029 standard deviation difference in the comparing data are insignificant, lost in the noise.

    1. I believe the meaning is that RTW laws do not make things worse, as unions claim.

  2. What is the causal mechanism by which a right to work law improves an individual's life satisfaction and economic sentiment? The increased competition makes them value their life more? Maybe they have to work harder, which is an intrinsic reward I suppose, thus earning more money. Still, quite a stretch.

    Moreover, a .029 Standard Deviation and a .041 Standard Deviation are very small effects. I don't have access to the full text, so I can't see the r-squared. Even if statistically significant, those effects are tiny.

    I say these criticisms of this study as a supporter of Right to Work laws.

    1. One possible mechanism is that they force unions to do a better job for their members if they want to retain them.

      Maybe a better interpretation of the effects is that the laws have no effect on life satisfaction and economic sentiment.

      1. I'm inclined to agree with your latter interpretation as a Occam's Razor way of looking at things, given the magnitude is so small.

        1. Agree on simplest explanation: a better interpretation of the effects is that the laws have no effect on life satisfaction and economic sentiment.

    2. Correlational studies like this cannot prove causal mechanisms but the authors hypothesize that it's the result of increased competition by unions. That is, when unions believe that their members have choices, the unions increase services and that this makes union members happier.

      I concur that their measured results are very small. And given the many ways statistics can be tortured, their results deserve to be scrutinized very carefully.

      But even assuming the worst, this study's results contradict union claims that right to work laws are bad for union workers.

      1. Yes, this is a correlation study, and I am glad you pointed out the author's theory, that union competition is the theoretical explanation for the direction of the change. However, is there, as per Absaroka's comment below, some qualitative research prior to the paper? I don't know without access to the text.

        Without that theoretical backing, I'm thinking this was a data mined result. That said, it is one study.

    3. "What is the causal mechanism by which a right to work law improves an individual’s life satisfaction and economic sentiment?"

      I've known several people who worked at fairly unhappy union shops, and would paraphrase their anecdata like this: union shops can be pretty political, i.e. if you are BFF with the union steward you get the plum assignments etc. If you aren't that into sucking up to the steward, you get the short end of the stick. If it is a closed shop, those unfavored people don't have any options. OTOH, if it's an open shop, the folks who aren't favorites of the union brass can just opt out of the union altogether. The threat of them doing so limits how unfair the union brass can be playing favorites between their members.

      1. I know two people that work or have worked for the Postal Service; one was even a shop steward for the Union.

        Both hate the workplace and know the Union doesn't give a goddamn about them or a good workplace or anything.

        Strangely, neither of them actually puts it like that or outwardly blames the union for anything [the one who's still in obviously has good reason to not say so], but there's not really any other way to interpret their griping about the Union's responses and failures and structures.

        One might even infer that a monopoly employer with mandatory membership has no reason at all to care about the workers.

        Incentives, what are they?

    4. Possible contributors to this phenomena include that people like to be useful, efficient, and productive because evolution has selected for that trait (people who didn't like to be useful, efficient, and productive would have, before modern society began to interfere with human evolution, probably tended to die more frequently in famines and wars). However, humans also want to be rewarded for being more efficient, useful, and hard working just as a matter of fairness.

      Unions tend to put work rules in place that get in the way of productivity. For example work rules may prevent a machinist from making an obvious fix to their own machine and instead make them stand around and wait idly for 20 minutes until a member of the "correct" union responds and spends thirty seconds doing just what the machinist knew needed doing. This is bad for morale.

      Also, Unions in the US generally reward seniority much more than accomplishments. So, those who like to be productive and work hard feel like fools if they do so because they know that in the next layoff they will be laid off even though they work two times as hard and get three times as much work done as the lazy bum who has 15 years of seniority. This is also bad for morale.

      Also, of course, those who aren't basically forced to join a union in such states don't feel as coerced. They also have the union dues in their pockets to spend on things they want instead of the pockets of fat-cats who spend them on babes, booze, and boats.

  3. How was the hammer and sickle deployed? So as to suggest that right to work was communist? Or asserting solidarity with communism? I could see it going either way.

  4. So now we are claiming the intent of Right to Work is to improve union services? Is there truly no bottom to the Conservative Pit of Shamelessness?

    Just kidding. It’s been clear for a long long long time there is no bottom.

    1. "So now we are claiming the intent of Right to Work is to improve union services?"

      No such claim has been made.

      1. “Moreover, these improvements in well-being are consistent with an increase in competition among unions, which prompts them to provide higher-quality services that are valued by their members.

        Higher-quality services, whatever that means, are being directly linked to the alleged well-being benefits of RTW laws.

        1. “Moreover, these improvements in well-being are consistent with an increase in competition among unions, which prompts them to provide higher-quality services that are valued by their members.

          In my experience "are consistent with" is a weasel phrase, sort of defending a claim that the evidence doesn't greatly support, but doesn't refute. It's not really a claim that the evidence for this is good.

          1. Like air traffic controllers using the word "appears" instead of making a declarative statement. I.E. "There appears to be flames coming from the engine" instead of saying "You're engine is on fire."

        2. "Higher-quality services, whatever that means, are being directly linked to the alleged well-being benefits of RTW laws."

          As an effect. No claim is made regarding the intent of the authors of RTW laws.

          Ever hear of unintended consequences? They aren't always negative.

      2. But you are correct, that is not the same as claiming these laws were always intended to the benefit of unions. Yet.

        1. Just think of it like this, if a company has a monopoly, are they inclined to provide good customer service?

          Absaroka's comment upthread is the best reasonable explanation for how customer service by unions in RTW states happens.

  5. Gee, I don't know. Does freedom work? Let's issue a call for papers and find out.

    1. How to do you define "freedom"? I'm no fan of unions, but people should be free to organize too, just as they should be free to walk away from a union.

      How do you define "work"? Does RTW improve the life of the worker, improve GDP, improve profits, or perhaps some other measure?

      Still, it should be nice that someone's trying to empirically prove what you intrinsically believe, is it not?

      1. That's what most Right to Work Laws do. They don't ban unions but they also don't allow forcing someone to join one.

        The actual effect is that many workers choose not to join the union, unless there is a compelling reason, like a good pension plan, good health insurance or a fishing rodeo.

        1. Or benefitting from union won gains to salary and/or working conditions paid for by others.

    2. I'm not a union guy. Right to Work laws, however, limit the freedom to contract.

      1. You're still absolutely free to contract. You just can't FORCE others into your desired contract.

        1. Agree, but no one is forced into union security agreements, either. The employment relationship is itself voluntary. The employer who agrees to a CBA with a union security provision, does not FORCE anyone to accept it. It's just a condition of employment, like any other condition. If an employer requires employees to adhere to a dress code that the employee didn't negotiate, you wouldn't say that the employee is FORCE[d] to adhere to the dress code, would you?

          1. Actually, companies ARE forced into union security agreement. By law.

            If a union forms up, they can basically force the company to accept them, then force you to join the union.

            I mean, I suppose the company can always "choose" to close up shop, rather than deal with the union. And you can always "choose" to lose your job, rather than join the union. It's a really crap "choice" though. It's like you can "choose" to pay you taxes. If you don't, you go to jail. But, sure, it's a "choice".

            1. Could you elaborate? I'm an employer, and I've never been forced into a union security agreement. By law or otherwise. In fact I've never been forced into a union labor agreement at all. My understanding is that the NLRB does not require me to enter into union labor agreements with employees. It does require me to negotiate in good faith with a union if one is formed, and prevents me from interfering with my employees' efforts to bargain collectively. Right to Work laws, so far as I can tell, have no effect on the NLRB except they limit a particular type of collective bargaining agreement between me (employer) and my employees.

              The only other thing I'm forced to do (so far as I can tell) is post an NLRB sign somewhere in my office and tell my employees about it. That is real coercion. But that doesn't mean Right to Work laws are not coercive. It just means the NLRB is coercive, too.

              1. As you've repeatedly stated, you live in a right to work state. You wouldn't be forced into one.

                1. Right to Work laws only affect union security agreements. I'm not obligated to agree with the union in the first place. So I'm struggling to see how a union can force me to accept anything.

                  1. Really? You struggle to see how a union can force you to accept anything? That's how you're playing this...

                    1. It's not the 1980s anymore, AL.

                    2. I negotiate with my employees all the time. Sometimes they ask me for things that I don't give them. Other times they ask for things that I give them. In no event have I ever been "force[d]" to give an employee something I wasn't willing to give them. And the NLRB applies, in my office.

            2. Armchair, want to be an employer who knows how to avoid any requirement to deal with unions—and save some money too? Just figure out what the typical union wages and working conditions are in your area, and offer a little bit better. Problem solved. Your workers will not vote to unionize.

              Workers who enjoy even material parity while working in a non-union shop will not usually vote to join a union, and pay dues. You are home free, and you will be able to take the pick of the best workers, which will more than make up in productivity for any extra you lay out to improve conditions.

              I say this as someone who has seen the good and the bad of unionism from the inside. I have been a member at different times of the Machinists, the Boiler Makers, and the Operating Engineers. I have also worked in non-union shops which competed with unionized rivals, and where I benefited just as I described above.

              Make no mistake, Right to Work is harmful and dangerous to workers, and seeks no other object except to increase employers' power to exploit workers, to their detriment. And Right to Work does that by suppressing freedom of contract, just as unionists say it does.

              1. You'd think that. You know, be a good company, pay your farm workers well, and they won't unionize.

                But then, some external union comes in. Claims to be their union. Takes their money. The workers try to decertify the union, but the labor board suppresses the vote. For half a decade.

              2. Stephen, that's what most plants in Texas do. Unionized plants are widely regarded as dysfunctional by contract workers and vendors that work at both plants.

                On the other hand, in locations like California, Unions routinely move in and force unions on the workers. If a plant wishes to open without a union, or if the workers are in the "wrong" union, it has on numerous occasions resulted in violence. This is the point of the "card check" vote, which has on numerous occasions resulted in violence against anyone who disagrees with the union. It's little better than the Mob. Trying to throw out a union, even if you disagree with it, is almost impossible without a major inciting incident. The only real way to remove a union that is not good but not truly horrible is for people to gradually drop membership. Something that closed-shop states ban.

                Right to work is necessary. Mandatory unions are dangerous, destructive, and harm workers.

                A union is like a lawyer. Employing them should be an unusual thing, not something done out of routine or for no reason.

            3. In non-RTW states, employers can be required to bargain over union security. They cannot be required to agree to it (or anything else for that matter). See 29 U.S.C. 158(d) (“such obligation [to bargain in good faith] does not compel either party to agree to a proposal or require the making of a concession”).

              1. But who decides what "good faith" is? The NLRB.... With it's pronounced pro-union bias.

                If after sufficient good faith efforts, no agreement can be reached, the employer may declare impasse, and then implement the last offer presented to the union. However, the union may disagree that true impasse has been reached and file a charge of an unfair labor practice for failure to bargain in good faith. The NLRB will determine whether true impasse was reached based on the history of negotiations and the understandings of both parties.

                If the Agency finds that impasse was not reached, the employer will be asked to return to the bargaining table. In an extreme case, the NLRB may seek a federal court order to force the employer to bargain.

                The company "will" be forced to make concessions.

                1. Yeah, that NLRB bias is why wages and benefits have increased to such bloated proportions over the years.

                  Wait...somehow neither have kept up with inflation for like 30 years.

                  A conspiracy!

      2. "I’m not a union guy. Right to Work laws, however, limit the freedom to contract."

        So do laws that protect unions. Let unions make whatever contracts they want, and let business hire and fire whoever they want.

        1. Some Right to Work laws (like the one in my state) would bar certain employer/employee agreements even in the absence of the NLRB.

        2. TiP, the above situation is what made us nearly succumb to a socialist revolution in the 1930s. Some minimum standards for workers are required, else the race to the bottom ends up with a level of discontent that I don't think is sustainable in modern America.

  6. Or maybe knowing you can just walk out and get another job makes workers happy?

  7. How can any Libertarians or Republicans or Conservatives ever be supportive of RTW laws?

    They're a government ban on otherwise non-criminal activity (i.e. a contract between two legal entities).

    So much for freedom, economic freedom, small govt, etc....

    1. Because they force someone into a union if they don't want to be? I don't want my $ going to corrupt bosses and Dem causes just for the ability to work at XYZ company. Would this make me a free-rider on the benefits the unions provide? That's the heart of the debate I suppose, and the latch pro-union types hook onto.

      But, then again, you just asked WHY, and here is one answer for you.

      1. Nobody is forced to join a union they don't want to be a part of.

        1. Sadly, it depends. True, you could always choose to work in another profession, and then you'd be 100% correct. We we also speaking about RTW states vs non-RTW states. Correct me if I'm wrong, but if you want to, for example, work at a Ford plant on the assembly line in Detroit, you cannot get the job without joining the union.

          It took a Supreme Court case to undue this mandatory union membership in 2018 with public sector unions. The response in IL was to make it so you have a 10 day window to opt out, and you must contact the union and tell them this (you can't just tell the HR department), among other restrictions.

          1. I don't know what Detroit does. I live in a RTW state. But if you want to work at a Ford plant anywhere, my assumption is you have to agree to the Ford employment manual, too, which may have all sorts of conditions that I would otherwise find objectionable. For instance, you probably have to show up and do work. Then again, that's why they have to pay you to adhere to that shit.

        2. No, you just need to lose your job if you don't want to be part of the union.


          1. Yes, you'll also lose your job if you demand more pay than the employer is willing to pay, refuse to obey your superiors, or any one of thousands of other things the employer can impose on employees as a condition of employment. Employment is voluntary both ways; if the employer doesn't want you there, you don't get to be there (with some exceptions).

            1. "Employment is voluntary both ways; if the employer doesn’t want you there, you don’t get to be there (with some exceptions)."

              And many of those exceptions protect unions. If you want to argue for economic freedom, argue for economic freedom.

              1. Are "economic freedom" and "freedom to contract" the same thing? I think you are talking past each other, to some extent.

                1. freedom of contract is a type of economic freedom. Right to work laws interfere with my freedom to make contracts with my employer, but federal labor laws give unions leverage to require employers to demand certain things of my that they wouldn't be able to in a free market.

                  1. I'm not an NLRB guy. But I think the idea is that collective bargaining and negotiation are consistent with free markets, and certain aspects of the NLRB are intended to preserve that bargain-forcing function.

                    1. It's not a free-market unless both sides are free to walk away from negotiation and refuse to sign a contract.

                    2. I'm not free to walk away from a union proposal? I thought the only thing the NLRB imposed on me was a good faith negotiation obligation.

              2. I'm arguing for economic freedom. I've also argued against it, by weakly supporting RTW laws.

      2. Unions aren't allowed to use general funds raised from membership dues to contribute to political campaigns. They have to run a separate PAC with separate donations from members.

    2. They don't ban union contracts, just a specific clause (new employees must join the union to be hired) that limit the freedom of third parties who had no part in negotiating the contract.

      1. In that way they limit contract rights. If a potential hire does not want to be bound by a union agreement they had no part in negotiating, they shouldn't work at a place with a union contract they had no part in negotiating.

        I weakly support Right to Work laws as a matter of policy, despite their freedom-limiting feature.

        1. So, funny story about California farm workers at Gerawan Farms, and the United Farm Workers Union.

          The union did nothing for the workers for years. The workers didn't see the union at all. Until one day, it rolled in, and demanded 3% of their wages as "dues".

          Workers said "hell no"...and voted to decertify the union. By a 5:1 margin. But.... the Labor board suppressed the vote for over 5 years. Forcing the farm workers to stay with the union they hated. Until the Supreme Court of CA made them release the vote.

          Now, in a right to work state, this wouldn't have happened. But it was California.

          1. I'm not defending unions. I live in Texas. But we should be clear about what RTW laws are. They are a law intended to prevent employers from entering into certain agreements with employees and employees' unions.

            1. "They are a law intended to prevent employers from entering into certain agreements with employees and employees’ unions."

              Yes, they are laws intended to mitigate the effects of federal laws requiring employers to enter into certain agreements with unions. So it's not really about more or less economic freedom, it's about what the rules are.

        2. "In that way they limit contract rights."

          Not buying it.

          An economic freedom based right to contract necessarily contains a right to NOT contract. That is NOT the current situation with employer/union contracts. The employer is NOT free to walk away and not contract with the union.

          1. My understanding and your understanding are very different.

          2. “[S]uch obligation [to bargain in good faith] does not compel either party to agree to a proposal or require the making of a concession.” 29 U.S.C. 158.

  8. Not surprising.

    Unions had a purpose in the past with monopolistic employers, safety conditions that needed to be fixed, and the requirements for ground-up based unified bargaining to help fix these. These benefits outweighed the inefficiencies in unions. However...

    These days the government handles the safety violations. Most employers do not have the monopolistic total control over employees that they did in the early 1900's. And the unions are less ground up, and more distant leadership cadres somewhere else.

    Unions present their own inefficiencies. They directly take dues from the worker's pockets. They purport to increase wages...but that comes at the cost of higher unemployment, as labor prices rise artificially. Unions demand static workplaces that discourage flexibility or initiative...everyone is paid the same (except for seniority), so there's no bonus to working harder or smarter. And working outside your job role is...basically not allowed, despite how it might help the company as a whole. And these days, most industries don't have the capability to pay more wages from excess profits...profit margins tend to be fairly low, and that's before any reinvestment into capital improvements.

    If 100 workers join a union, and get a 3% hike in pay as a result...but that immediately goes to pay for 3% union dues. And then the company needs to reduce staff by 2-3 to pay for the hiked wages.... Then the effects are clear

    1. And the unions are less ground up, and more distant leadership cadres somewhere else.

      You assume they ever were different. Go see Hoffa. Form a union, demand a few things as they rage around, skim off the top. Same as politicians.

    2. Armchair, you certainly do not have any breadth of experience with union employment. The terms of union employment are much more varied than you say. And based on your remark that the government now enforces safety, I doubt you have ever worked in a genuinely dangerous workplace.

  9. Our Founding Fathers created a nation guided by Liberty. And the citizenry they envisioned did not need labor unions; and sadly, 'Liberty' is not longer first in the minds of Americans.
    One would anticipate that a discussion of labor unions would include at least some reference to Liberty (including a right to join a labor union - or not). That said, it is not surprising that the word 'liberty' goes unmentioned the comments of a Volokh Conspiracy article.

    1. That's the core difference between the left and the right, or US concepts of government vs. Europe.

      The US broke from control and demanded freedom and implemented it. Freedom from government and the mucking about of presumptively corrupt politicians. European reformers saw the same but when they took over, created a narrative of might as well be the people themselves grafting from each other.

      Two responses to "too much power", 1. Limit it. 2. Vox populi vox dei

  10. If the goal is to improve the wages, benefits, and bargaining power of workers, the most effective way to do that would be to end the lobbyist-cherished practice of supplying excess labor through historically unprecedented immigration levels.

    1. Bigots have become quite inventive in their arguments since their betters made it uncool to be known as a bigot.

      But history is emphatic: The bigots don't win in America, not over time. We have experienced successive waves of ignorance and intolerance, usually related to skin color, immigration, religion, and/or perceived economic pressures. The bigots have targeted the Irish, blacks, Jews, Italians, Asians, agnostics, eastern Europeans, Muslims, Catholics, other Asians, Hispanics, atheists, gays, other Hispanics, etc. Most Americans, at one time or another. And the bigots always lose.

      This latest batch of bigots seems nothing special, its reliance on the charms, insights, and integrity of Donald J. Trump notwithstanding. These bigots will be sent home in tatters by better Americans, just as the bigots who preceded them were.

      Keep ranting about immigrants, clingers. It helps us identify the bigots we need to replace.

  11. If you don't like how a corporation spends money, find another investment.

    If you don't like working conditions in a unionized workforce, find another job.

    If clingers keep picking at unions in this manner, perhaps their betters will start compelling corporations to refund money to shareholders who don't like certain expenditures.

  12. I disagree with right to work laws except in one instance. I worked half my life in Union jobs, and half in non-union jobs. Retired now. If you don't want to work for a union, don't apply at a union job. Right to work only allows bloodsuckers to avoid the dues and enjoy whatever benefits are provided. Now one place I worked was non-union, and bought by a Union company. No one in this case should be forced to join the union. Really I am neither union or anti-union. Every non-union job I had said they offered the pay they did to compete with unions in my field (power plant operations), so there were indirect benefits, but basically the the pay and conditions were about equal after deducting the union dues. Also remember Unions strength is a direct result of the industry. Monopolies and oligopolies have strong unions. Unions are useless in things like grocery stores and nursing homes because of multiple, decentralized facilities.

    1. The story of the Market Basket grocery chain around the Boston area is instructive. Much compressed, owners of the chain came to disagree about unions in their stores. The anti-union view seemed at first to prevail, and take control. Then the unions struck, going out on behalf of the losing party in the ownership struggle. The strike forced a deal where the pro-union owner got control instead, and the other side exited. Years later, the chain is bigger than ever, more popular than ever, and enjoys a widespread consensus that Market Basket is a more cost-effective place to shop than any of its rivals. Every Boston-area town wants to get a Market Basket.

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