How Right to Work Laws Entrench Economic and Political Inequality

Amber Baur, Political Director , UFCW Western States Council, NLC San Francisco

New Leaders Council
Dec 1, 2017 · 11 min read

Many Americans understand the term “Right to Work” to describe a sensible policy of allowing workers to choose whether or not to be represented by a union in their workplace. In contemporary politics, it now represents a concerted effort by several billionaire funders to defund and weaken the progressive movement through the destruction of labor unions. Having spent decades framing the issue and defining the narrative with a coordinated legislative and judicial assault, unions’ ability to organize workers, fund electoral efforts to turn out union members and other democratic voters and support progressive candidates for public office has been severely weakened.

The effort to push “Right to Work” is not a novel concept. In the early 1900s, it was actively touted by known white supremacist Vance Muse to advance an agenda of hatred and racism directed at Black American workers. There was a focused effort in the South during the 1930s and 1940s to weaken labor unions to push a segregationist agenda through the “Right to Work” fight. They pushed hard to keep “Right to Work” in the South and resist labor unions’ efforts to organize in the region; decentralizing power and weakening efforts to build organizational structure for a coordinated strategy around economic and racial justice1.

In 2010, a conservative backlash led by the “Tea Party” reform movement swept the nation; resulting in Democrats losing control of the U.S. House of Representative, the United States Senate and many state governorships and legislatures. This emboldened a small network of billionaire funders to renew focus on the crippling of labor unions, unleashing a coordinated legislative attack on the foundation of union organizing. The “Right to Work” strategy sought to undermine labor unions’ ability to organize and represent union workers by allowing workers to opt out of paying union dues while still requiring labor unions to represent them in the workplace and at the bargaining table.

Since then, conservatives have continued to exploit majorities in state legislatures by ramping up attacks on labor unions by passing legislation that limits the ability of unions to represent workers in the workplace and restricting the ability of unions to participate in political activity. Labor unions serve a critical role in the fight to reduce income inequality and increase political participation; without unions actively working to turn out members, and key progressive constituencies that include low propensity voters, voters of color and lower income voters, progressive turnout around the country plummeted.

In 2016, these attacks had real consequences across states that in past elections had voted democratic. The commonality amongst these states was they had recently passed “Right to Work” legislation. This legislation limited unions’ abilities to turn out their members and communicate widely to voters that would have likely supported the democratic candidate. Donald Trump’s ascendancy to the presidency was directly linked to losing the traditional democratic states Wisconsin and Michigan.

In states with “Right to Work” laws, unions have less resources to engage members on issues and a diminished capacity to organize. Staff resources are spent organizing workers to become members. “Right to Work” laws also being require unions to continue to represent all workers in a given worksite, whether they are members or not. Time spent on servicing and membership recruitment limits the capacity of the union to focus on broader issues that affect a wide cross section of workers. There are less resources available to communicate through targeted communication, organizing efforts and outreach activities.

There are other impacts felt when “Right to Work” legislation passes in states. States see a decline in union membership after legislation passes. Not all RTW states see a drastic reduction in members, but nearly 50% see a drop in organizing efforts within the first five years, results in an overall decrease of 5–10% of new members. Labor unions may be able to hang on to most of their current members after RTW state laws are enacted, but resources needed to organize new industries or workplaces dry up as staff prioritizes organizing those workers already in union shops. RTW state laws are also associated with elevated rates of workplace injuries. In 2011, Richard Zullo explores a direct link between the higher rates of industry and occupational fatalities to the passage of RTW states laws and finds that these laws may be directly responsible. In states with RTW laws, safety training and injury prevention are underfunded and correlated to increased injuries and fatalities on the job.

The impact of RTW legislation affects all workers, regardless of union membership. The reduction of the union’s ability to organize and represent union members increases income inequality for all workers. Wages in RTW states are 3 percent lower than those in non-RTW states. This means the average full time worker sees $1,558 less annually. The average median wage is $2 less an hour in these states; controlling for union membership we see a wage differential at 4%3. This conclusion is echoed in a study done by the University of Illinois that controls for education, occupation and demographics and finds that workers in Indiana, Michigan and Wisconsin all have seen a decrease in hourly wages by 2.6%. African American workers, who are statistically more likely to be union members than white workers, experience this decrease in wages more acutely, as do similar workers in higher paying jobs such as construction6. For female workers belonging to a labor union, the wage gap between them and their male coworkers is markedly lower than the national average, about 9.4 cents versus 18.7 cents.

American citizens with significant financial resources are more likely to engage in the political system and have their values reflected in policies passed by elected officials. Labor unions offset the over representation of wealthy Americans and their interests by providing a mechanism for workers to engage in the political process through collective action. Unions spend resources organizing their members to participate in electoral politics. States that have high union density, such as California, Washington and New York, have higher minimum wages, more participation in the healthcare delivery system, higher labor standards and protection for consumers. States that have passed “Right to Work” laws are more likely to have legislatures dominated by elected officials who pass more “business friendly” legislation, less regulation, and are usually more conservative in the approach to social issues.

Union members receive more consistent information directly related to left leaning progressive ideas. This results in union members acting more progressive than their cohort; belonging to a union changes members outlook and challenges previously held perceptions and ideas.5 Union membership is an important connection between the member and the civic engagement structure; it makes the process more easily navigable to those already suffering from greater income inequality.

One key indicator of increased engagement in the political process by union members is higher levels of turnout. Union members tend to turn out in higher numbers than other workers with similar demographics. Union engagement programs not only have an impact on members’ beliefs, attitudes and behaviors, other white working class voters and voters of color are impacted as well. These cohorts are more likely to participate if there is a union organizing campaign in their district. Decreased union membership results in lower turnout among this same group. Specifically, union engagement increases midterm election turnout.

As union membership continues to decline and with national “Right to Work laws” looming, we will see a direct impact on progressives’ ability to organize voters and pass progressive policies. “Right to Work” laws are directly related to lower rates of union membership, lower wages, lower levels of trust in political institutions and less progressive tax structures; shifting the power even further in favor of corporate interests and the wealthiest Americans. States with higher levels of union membership have more progressive policy outcomes than states with lower union membership. This relationship is not evident when looking at campaign contributions, so this suggests that the outcome is tied directly to unions’ ability to organize and mobilize members.

Case Study: Michigan

Long considered to be a union stronghold, Michigan came under Republican control in 2010. Republicans took advantage of the Tea Party wave and favorable district lines drawn by a gerrymandered process for state legislative districts. The shift in power brought the return of “Right to Work” principles into civic conversation and unions feared for their future. Unions moved quickly to try and protect union rights to collectively bargain through a ballot proposition in 2012. The proposition was defeated and Republicans ceased an opportunity to go on the offense by introducing “Right to Work” legislation that would severely cripple unions’ ability to engage in organizing and political activity.

Led by the billionaire donor Dick DeVos, an aggressive effort was undertaken to push the newly elected Governor and other Republican Party leaders to engage in a RTW fight. This legislation was designed to cripple the ability of unions to engage in politics. This legislation, when passed, increased the likelihood of the Republicans winning the 2016 presidential election. The legislation quickly passed through the Republican legislature and was signed into law by Governor Snyder, who had been quoted as saying that RTW wasn’t even on his political radar.

The impact of “Right to Work” was felt gradually in Michigan as union contracts under the previous system begin to expire. In 2016, Michigan’s unions experienced a loss of 15,000 unionized workers or about a 1% decrease. The greatest job losses were in occupations that traditionally provided pathways to middle class employment. The reduction in the unionized workforce was particularly felt by those workers with two and four year college degrees the hardest.

Michigan’s unemployment rate is below the national average at 4.5%. The low unemployment rate is due to fewer workers, not the creation of more jobs. Michigan’s auto industry was hit hard during the recession, and the state experienced a mass exodus of younger residents moving out of the state for employment opportunities. As the state of Michigan became less unionized, less educated and less urbanized politics in the state became increasingly reactionary. The reactionary conditions created within Michigan’s political environment led to the embrace of Donald Trump’s hateful rhetoric.

Michigan voters that have been left behind in its post-recession economy see trade agreements such as NAFTA, the reason employment opportunities in Michigan have been reduced. The message Donald Trump carried in the campaign around his ability for the country to renegotiate these agreements resonated with many of Michigan’s voters. This was not a triumph of the Republican nominee winning over white working class and union voters in the Rust Belt, instead Democrats were not able to engage them and get them out to vote. Participation was down in both key democratic precincts and in concentrated urban areas. Counties like Genesee where Flint, Michigan is located went Democratic by 10 points, but still fell short of the larger margins Obama saw in both elections. Michigan lost approximately 49,000 union during and after the RTW fight and Trump won Michigan by about 10,500 votes.

While the recent RTW law did not lose the Presidential election for Democrats, it created an environment that made it harder for union members to mobilize while promoting a progressive message that could have engaged union and nonmembers alike. This instability shifted the center of power and allowed Trump’s economic populist message to gain traction among those disengaged from the political process, exacerbating the impact of economic inequality. Candidates, their campaigns and their messages are fundamental to political outcomes, but so are organizations that involve citizens in civic engagement and engage them in efforts to turn them out to vote.14

The success of labor unions is integral to the advancement of progressive electoral and legislative outcomes in local, state and national politics. Progressive organizations and their members must participate in active campaigns to organize workers, build a strong base of engaged citizens and create a center of power for all workers that builds the movement. Organizations seeking to further progressive causes must be involved in the fight against efforts to enact RTW legislation, engaging in coordinated efforts with labor and community partners to beat back efforts to crush the left.

Blocking National and Regional “Right to Work” effort is only part of the fight; there must also be a broad, progressive coalition moving an offensive plan to build the movement. Legislative efforts to redress the inequities in labor organizing must be pushed in areas with progressive strength. Legislators must be held accountable on legislation that builds power for workers and alliances between labor unions and progressive groups real and meaningful, not transactional. Labor unions and their allies must explore a coordinated strategy that includes both legislative ideas and judicial challenges to effect real change and shift the narrative.

In 2013, California legislator Jimmy Gomez authored AB 880, legislation that targeted large corporations attempting to shirk their obligation to workers’ health care benefits under the Affordable Care Act. The legislation would have fined employers when their workers are forced onto Medi Cal, instead of working enough hours to qualify for a company plan. Highlighting these employers would allow unions and community groups to focus on these unscrupulous actors and emphasize the value of union membership; providing a powerful counter narrative that focuses on the wealthy corporations and businesses responsible for the vast income inequality in the economy.

The bill did not pass due to several business-aligned, moderate Democratic legislators either neglecting to vote or voting no on the legislation. In 2016, a coalition of environmental advocates, consumer attorneys and labor unions formed to hold one of these legislators accountable for this and other votes in direct opposition to progressive priorities. Assemblymember Cheryl Brown represented the Inland Empire, a community hit hard by the environmental impact of extreme pollution, gun violence and the impact of income inequality. The coalition built a campaign based on grassroots organizing that focused on progressive values and dignity and respect for working families. They were successful in ousting Brown from office and elected a Eloise Gomez Reyes, a champion for their values. This fight was critical to building a mutually beneficial, long-term relationship in the community that strengthened both the labor movement and the partner organizations.

Mandated disclosure laws requiring transparency in wage and salary information could help organizers identify bad employers and target potential work sites for organizing. Employee dissatisfaction with income inequity, noncompliance with wage and hour laws or wage discrimination can all be more easily identified with more transparent compensation disclosure. It could serve to shift some of the power dynamic to the workers and worksite organizers looking to address wage discrimination and work place violations, arming them with information to educate and unify workers.

Legislation that strengthens the position of workers and labor unions while organizing should be explored in areas with progressive majorities throughout the country. In 2017, Assemblymember Lorena Gonzalez Fletcher authored AB 306 in California, which would allow workers locked out of their place of employment due to a labor strike, to be eligible for unemployment benefits. Providing striking workers with economic relief while on the picket line supports labor organizing efforts and empowers workers to stand up for a union contract.

Further research must be done to test pre-emption in areas with strong, progressive majorities. In “Right to Work” states, additional research should focus on exploring proposed changes to federal law that would redefine exclusive representation, perhaps creating a member only bargaining unit24. All workers within the bargaining unit could pay a fee for representation and those who did not want to be included in the union would be outside that bargaining unit and would enter into a direct agreement for employment with the employer. Labor unions and their allies must explore a coordinated strategy that includes both legislative ideas and judicial challenges.

Finally, progressive organizations must take a principled stand on fundraising. Monetary contributions should not be accepted by organizations that contribute and fund efforts to devastate labor unions, fight against attempts to organize workers, or contribute in any way to the advancement of “Right to Work” principles. Organizations should adopt principled fundraising guidelines that reflect the values of the organization and support efforts to build power among workers to form a union and therefore reduce income inequality in the most effective way possible.

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