Right to Work
HRMT413: Employment and Labor Relations
Dr. StarcherApril 22, 2018
Three seemingly innocuous words, Right to Work (RTW), have been the subject of much debate among historians, politicians, labor leaders and employers since the mid-part of the last century. Legislation used to describe labor statutes currently in effect in 28 states, RTW laws prohibit union security agreements, meaning that persons employed at unionized workplaces are not required to join the union or pay dues, but are, nevertheless, afforded the full protection and support of union representation. The law is intended to enhance the economic conditions in a state by giving employers parity with unions in determining how employees are accommodated in the workplace. According to proponents of the legislation, these laws create the conditions that attract employers to a state, thus ensuring increased economic growth, job creation, and tax revenues. Unsurprisingly, organized labor views RTW legislation as a slippery slope toward eroding workers’ rights, lowering wages, and eradicating unions. A review of the history of the legislation and its impact on the economy, as well as on the rights of workers, will show that RTW laws fail to achieve their economic objectives, and are harmful to both organized labor and the people it represents (Collins, 2014; Shermer, 2009).
The phrase right to work was coined by Louis Blanc, a 19th century French, socialist- politician, in his1840 work, The Organization of Labor. During the early to mid-nineteenth century there was tremendous social unrest in France and unemployment was rampant due, in part, to the Industrial Revolution. Blanc posited that it was the government’s responsibility to ensure that its poorest citizens were given the opportunity to work, and that competition among employers to secure labor at the lowest possible wage made it impossible for the government to act on behalf of this downtrodden constituency (Moore et al., 1911).
By 1947, what Blanc had described a century earlier as the government’s responsibility to employ every citizen who wishes to work, is nearly absent in the RTW legislation that surfaces in the United States. Beginning in 1946, conservative politicians and employers concerned with the unrest and strikes that plagued labor relations following passage of the National Labor Relations Act of 1935, rallied to reduce the power of organized labor. Early in 1947, Senator Robert Taft and Representative Fred Hartley put forward a bill that gave employers equal footing with unions by outlawing “closed shops” or workplaces that required prospective employees to become a member of the union as a condition of employment. Such arrangements are known as union security agreements, and they ensured that organized labor, having secured a contract to represent employees at a specific workplace, would be entitled to collect dues from all employees of the company by their mandatory participation in the union. Through the elimination of such agreements, the Taft-Hartley Act opened the door for states to bypass the union security clause of the NLRA, thereby making the closed shop illegal. Moreover, the new amendment dictated that if employees elected to forgo joining the union with which an employer had a collective bargaining agreement, they would, nevertheless, be eligible to receive the benefits established by the union on behalf of its members (Shermer, 2009).
Upon learning of the proposed legislation, organized labor was, understandably, outraged at the prospect of the amendment’s passing, and did everything in its power to portray the bill as one that would bring back the sweatshop labor conditions of the 19th century. President Truman, a strong supporter of labor, threatened to veto the bill, but it was of little use. Shermer (2009) describes the strategy used by conservative lawmakers and business leaders to promote the legislation, “To win votes advocates painted these laws as crucial to upholding freedom, democracy, and economic growth” (Shermer. 2009, p. 85). It was a campaign designed to destroy an important component of Roosevelt’s New Deal legislation by suggesting that workers who were required to join a union and pay dues to secure employment were, in essence, denied their “right to work.” On 23 June 1947, the Senate over-rode Truman’s veto and the Taft-Hartley Act passed. Between 1947 and 2017, 28 states and the U. S. territory of Guam adopted RTW legislation.
Since the inception of RTW legislation, the spirit of the law has remained intact, with only limited revisions to the NLRA that have impacted Taft-Hartley. The most significant of these was the Landrum-Griffin Act of 1959, which, among its most important provisions, gave state courts the ability to hear labor dispute cases that the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) declined to hear (NLRB, n.d.).
Arguments for and against RTW
While the history of RTW legislation is informed, in part, by the changing values of the American public from decade to decade, the reason voters support such laws remains uniformly consistent. Proponents of RTW argue that the statutes make states more appealing to prospective business, thus increasing economic activity, jobs, and tax revenues. Specifically, they point to these factors as evidence of support for nationwide RTW legislation:
RTW states allow employers more leverage in negotiating the terms of employment directly with their employees. The counter-argument from RTW opponents is that employees in RTW states make considerably less than those in states without such laws, which is an indication of why union representation and collective bargaining are so essential to preserving the rights of employees (Vedder, 2010).
A prospective employee should not be forced to pay union dues (or agency fees if he or she chooses not to become a member of the union) to support union political lobbying with which the individual does not agree. The counter-argument by RTW opponents is that the only fee required of an employee who chooses not to join the union is one which covers the benefits that the union has obtained through collective bargaining activities and must provide to all employees (Collins, 2014).
The American public has shown its ongoing support for RTW legislation by the vast numbers of people who have relocated to RTW states. Vedder (2010) reports that “U. S. Census Bureau population estimate data show more than 4.7 million Americans moved from non-RTW states to RTW states from April 2001 to July 2008…this suggests that job conscious Americans prefer areas that allow more individual employment liberty…” (p. 173). The counter-argument here is that Americans move for many reasons, including to avoid high-taxation rates, to relocate to a warmer climate, to be nearer relatives, etc. There is no definitive way to prove that RTW laws are the reason for an influx of population from one state to another (Vedder, 2010).
RTW laws create economic opportunity by attracting new employers to RTW states. Opponents counter that the research is inconclusive as to whether RTW laws are the primary incentive for a business to relocate. Many RTW states have business-friendly environments that offer much more to a relocating company than what it gains under RTW legislation, so it is difficult to pinpoint the motivation for corporate relocation (Collins, 2014).
The changing demographics of the workplace make RTW laws popular among the Millennial generation, which is driven by a need for independence in decisions concerning employment and other areas of their lives. Campione (2015) reports that “Given Millennials strong sense of individualism…establishment union coverage will negatively affect their job satisfaction” (p. 67). By contrast, the Baby Boom generation, which is currently reaching retirement age, is comfortable with organized labor because union membership helped to propel many of them, as well as their parents, into the middle class. Opponents of RTW would argue that the loss of union representation is the primary reason that so many individuals remain confined to employment that does not pay a living wage. As a result, the Millennial generation, whose members currently earn 20% less than their Baby Boom parents did at this point in their lives, could benefit from union representation in the workplace (Campione, 2015).
Conversely, opponents of RTW legislation make the case that the statutes are designed to destroy organized labor by depleting union resources that must be used to provide representation to employees who choose not to join the union: such individuals are referred to as “free-riders.” Among the factors that opponents point out as reasons to repeal RTW legislation are:
RTW laws are not what they appear to be. They were developed by lobbyists for big business, which is intent on destroying unions and thereby reducing the cost of labor. Opponents of union security would counter that they have no desire to dismantle unions, that unions are free to operate in RTW states, and that their only intention regarding employees is to ensure that people have the freedom to decline mandatory union membership as a condition of employment (Vedder, 2010).
The only way to stop free-riders, and not unfairly use dues-paying members’ money to represent employees who are not members, is to reinstate union security agreements. Again, opponents of union security would argue that no employee should be forced to join a union to gain employment, nor should they be required to pay dues or “agent fees” to support the views of the union, which may be contrary to their opinions (Devinatz, V., 2011).
Research confirms that employees in RTW states make considerably less than those in union security states, while businesses reflect an overall increase in revenue. Hogler (2011) comments, “Wages and personal income are both lower in RTW states…consequently, there appears to be little “trickle-down” to the non-unionized workforce” (p. 299). Opponents of union security would counter that the non-RTW states are seeing large numbers of people relocating to RTW states because the conditions are better for business, which means that jobs are more plentiful (Vedder, 2010).
Despite the numerous positions on RTW laws that offer convincing arguments on both sides of the debate, there is little doubt that such legislation has had a detrimental effect on organized labor, as well as on the ability of Americans to earn a living wage and thereby enhance their quality of life. According to Hogler (2010), “Labor policy that weakens unions has widespread consequences across a range of social factors including, health, education, income, job quality, and workplace fairness” (p. 301). Moreover, the primary argument in support of RTW legislation – that it enhances economic growth for the state — is inconclusive. Collins (2014) explains, “The effects of RTW laws on economic outcomes…have been mixed, and there is no broad consensus on the magnitude (if any) of the effects of these laws” (p. 13). Given that RTW laws have failed to live up to the promise of increased economic growth for the state, and have been shown to reduce wages and benefits for employees, while contributing to a significant decline in organized labor, it appears that none of the stakeholders benefit from such legislation. Accordingly, the ethical response would be for Congress to amend the Taft-Hartley Act to repeal the RTW provisions and reinstate union security agreements.
The Future of RTW Legislation
Although the repeal of RTW laws may be the ethical solution, such attempts have been fraught with political animus and contentious debate since 1947. What is evident is that RTW proposals flourish under Republican-controlled state houses, as well as a Republican’ House and Senate. In 2010, when control of both branches of government returned to the Republicans, RTW campaigns produced a resurgence of activity that was surpassed only by that which occurred between 1947 and 1958. Perhaps the biggest boon to the RTW movement came in 2012, when Michigan, a Democratic stronghold of support for organized labor, passed RTW legislation. Most recently, Kentucky, Missouri, Wisconsin and West Virginia have enacted such laws. Furthermore, since 1992, each session of Congress has opened with a push for national RTW legislation. As such, the immediate future of RTW seems bright, primarily as a result of Republican control at the state level, as well as the current Administration’s focus on big business. If the upcoming mid-term elections and the 2020 presidential race see significant gains by Democrats, it is possible, if not likely, that considerable attention returns to the repeal of RTW laws (Collins, 2014; Hogler, 2011).
Finally, if RTW laws are intended to ensure an employee’s right to work, labor unions would, assuredly, be among the legislation’s most prominent supporters. After all, ethical organized labor, from its earliest days through the present, focuses on creating fair and safe workplaces for all employees. Unfortunately, the real intent of RTW is one of destroying unions and removing the advantages workers have gained through collective bargaining agreements. This underhanded focus, coupled with the failure of RTW to achieve the economic success that is its primary objective, proves that the legislation is harmful to organized labor and the people it represents.
Campione, W. A. (2015). Corporate offerings: Why aren’t Millennials staying? The Journal of Applied Business and Economics, 17(4), 60-75. Retrieved from https://search-proquest-com.ezproxy1.apus.edu/docview/1764139218?accountid=8289Collins, B. (2014). Right to Work Laws: Legislative Background and Empirical Research., Congressional Research Service. Retrieved from https://apus.intelluslearning.com/Hogler, R. L. (2011). How right to work is destroying the American labor movement: From the Ku Klux Klan to the tea party. Employee Responsibilities and Rights Journal, 23(4), 295-304. Retrieved from doi:http://dx.doi.org.ezproxy2.apus.edu/10.1007/s10672-011-9183-1Moore L., Burnam, J., and Hartmann, H. G., eds., (1911). University of Cincinnati Studies, Series II, Vol. 7, pp. 1516, 5156. Retrieved from https://sourcebooks.fordham.edu/mod/1840blanc.aspShermer, E. T. (2009). Counter-organizing the Sunbelt: Right-to-work campaigns and anti-union conservatism, 1943-1958. Pacific Historical Review, 78(1), 81-118. Retrieved from doi:http://dx.doi.org.ezproxy1.apus.edu/10.1525/phr.2009.78.1.81Vedder, R. (2010). Right to work laws: liberty, prosperity, and quality of life. Cato Journal, 30(1), 171-180. Retrieved from https://search-proquest-com.ezproxy1.apus.edu/docview/195576598?accountid=8289