On its face, it sounds like simple freedom of choice; employees in states that have enacted right-to-work laws cannot be fired for refusing to join a union and pay union dues. Proponents state that right-to-work laws preserve workers' Constitutional right of association, and claim that unions increase manufacturing costs, making U.S. industry less competitive on the global stage. Right-to-work opponents counter that such laws weaken the power of the labor union to the point that wages are driven down and safety and health are compromised, and that they allow some workers to get the benefits that unions fight for, without making any contribution to that fight.
Here is a bit of background. The Taft-Hartley Act of 1947 prohibited the "closed shop"; that is, it prohibited employers from hiring only union members. The act still permitted "union shops", whereby workers were required to join a union - or pay minimum dues - within a certain period of time after hire, but it also gave individual states the right to outlaw the union shop by passing right-to-work laws. A right-to-work law prevents unions from negotiating contracts or legally binding documents requiring companies to fire workers who refuse to join the union or pay any dues. Currently 24 states have such right-to-work laws, and five states (Arizona, Arkansas, Florida, Mississippi, and Oklahoma) have right-to-work clauses in their constitutions.
Last week, Michigan - historically one of the most unionized states since the invention of the automobile - became the 24th state to enact a right-to-work law, preventing both private and public-sector unions from requiring workers to pay union dues. How did this happen? The short answer is that a freshman state senator, Patrick Colbeck, began building a strategy in 2011 to grow support for RTW (and he was backed by none other than the Koch Brothers), wooing other Republican legislators and Governor Snyder to the cause. Snyder, in fact, had at one time testified that RTW was not part of his agenda, but something, perhaps the business donors who got him elected, caused him to change his mind and support the bill. The Michigan House and Senate claimed that the law was about freedom of choice for workers. But federal law already gives workers a choice. They only are required to pay union dues to support collective bargaining activities; they are not required to become an active union member in order to keep their jobs. This law puts unions in a position where members can pay nothing and still reap the benefits of collective bargaining, ultimately weakening the unions. It should be noted that no hearings or public comment, or floor debate was held on the bill before the Michigan vote took place, and that the vote took place during a lame-duck legislative session, just weeks before the Michigan house Republicans are to lose 5 seats.
The question is: what is the economic impact of right-to-work laws in the states that have them, and are differences in right-to-work states a direct result of the laws, or due to other pro-business policies entirely? According to the Economic Policy Institute, hourly wages in states with right-to-work laws average 3.2% lower than those in collective bargaining states. In addition, the rate of employer-sponsored health insurance is 2.6% lower in RTW states. RTW's effect on the employment rate is murky at best; eight of the twelve states with the highest unemployment rates are RTW states. The starkest statistic, though, may be this: according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, the rate of workplace deaths is 52.9% higher in right-to-work states. You see, even in this day and age, unions don't just influence wages, they influence safety and health standards. They don't exist, as some claim, to milk companies dry; they exist to keep workers safe and fairly compensated.
So if the benefits of right-to-work laws for workers are unclear, what motivation might the likes of the Koch brothers have to encourage their passage? A more docile workforce, with less leverage to increase wages and benefits and decrease workplace hazards, which leads to greater corporate profits. Yes, folks, it's that simple. It's not about choice for workers. It's about putting them in a position where they get less, and corporations and their executives get more. Right to work, indeed.