Right to Work – what is it, and more importantly, what isn’t it?

Right to Work – what is it, and more importantly, what isn’t it?

Right to Work – what is it, and more importantly, what isn’t it?

The United States Constitution protects an individual’s right to free speech and association, which is violated when they are forced to subsidize a labor union – or any private organization – against their will.

Thus, employees should be able to choose for themselves whether to pay union dues or fees.

Right-to-work does just that, and nothing more.

Speaking of which, it’s important to realize that nothing about right-to-work prevents an employee from joining a union and paying membership dues voluntarily.

In fact, many Americans would probably be confused at the alternative that statement suggests. If voluntary membership isn’t the standard, then what is?

Not quite mandatory membership, but something very close – almost indistinguishable, in fact.

While no American can legally be forced to become a formal union member or pay formal union membership dues, states without right-to-work protections nonetheless allow unions to charge “nonmember fees” as a condition of employment. In most cases, the default fee for nonmembers is the exact same amount as full membership dues – or close enough to make opting out not worth the trouble.

While protecting an employee’s associational freedom is important in any context, the First Amendment violations of compulsory unionism become especially evident in the public sector. There, collective bargaining efforts with the government – often between unions and the very politicians they helped elect – are inherently political because they directly affect the size and cost of government services.

Without right-to-work protections, employees in unionized workplaces find themselves compelled to support political speech against their will.

To date, 28 states have put an end this injustice by enacting right-to-work legislation prohibiting nonmember union fees. Although the decision about whether to make to union payment voluntary is currently up to state legislatures, the upcoming U.S. Supreme Court case Janus v. AFSCME could soon bring right-to-work protections to public employees nationwide.

What right-to-work doesn’t do.

Union resistance to right-to-work is the derivative of two factors. First, union leaders have always understood that employee free choice threatens the old model of compulsory unionism. Second, most of them are unwilling – or unable – to accept anything different than that model.

Regrettably, this means the vast majority of union leaders staunchly oppose giving employees a choice about whether to pay dues. Rather than framing their opposition in terms of the First Amendment, though, they prefer to lead the conversation in different, fundamentally misleading directions.

Union rhetoric against right-to-work is sure to take center stage in the mainstream media as a decision in Janus v. AFSCME draws nearer. This makes it all the more important for members of the public to understand what they’re listening to.

The following are a few of the most common talking points against right-to-work.

1. Right-to-work destroys unions’ ability to collectively bargain.

This is perhaps the most generic, but also one of the most common, union lies about right-to-work laws. With inadequate reasons to oppose right-to-work from a policy perspective, union leaders often characterize it as part of a vast corporate conspiracy to eliminate workers’ rights to bargain collectively.

As with most conspiracy theories, however, the public should be rightly skeptical.

Case in point – the above statement quite literally suggests that right-to-work laws eliminate unions’ collective bargaining rights. Is this true?

Not in the least. Right-to-work does not affect collective bargaining in any way. It simply gives employees the freedom to choose whether to pay dues.

Unions arrive at this most common argument by performing some impressive mental gymnastics. Because right-to-work allows employees to choose whether to pay union dues, they reason, it will inevitably lead to decreased union revenue.

That, in turn, will weaken unions’ collective bargaining power, thus “destroying” unions.

However, Big Labor essentially concedes that its wounds will be self-inflicted on this point. Although employees covered by right-to-work can still choose to pay dues voluntarily, most union leaders know they’ve built their organizations on a compulsory model that, unlike businesses in the private sector, doesn’t rely on providing quality service to their members.

If workers decline to purchase their services when finally given a choice, unions have nobody to blame but themselves.

The reality is that effective unions will thrive, while ineffective ones will be rejected. Indeed, this is already evident in right-to-work states, where some unions have retained strong membership.

The lie that right-to-work “destroys” collective bargaining, therefore, is really a plea for survival from unaccountable union leaders who know they’ve dug their own grave.

Far from having a negative impact on collective bargaining, right-to-work forces unions to be more accountable to their members to earn their support.

2. Right-to-work states have lower wages and higher rates of poverty.

Although technically two separate points, unions often point to wages and poverty together as examples of the evils of right-to-work. Unions make this argument by referencing statistics showing that, in general, wages are lower in right-to-work states than in non-right-to-work states, while poverty rates are higher.

For anybody expecting causal proof, however, don’t bother.

The truth is, correlation is not causation. In making this argument, unions most commonly simply compare average wages and poverty rates – which are the result of various factors, including cost-of-living differences – between states.

Even sophisticated studies attempting to show a cause-and-effect relationship have been called into question for failure to fully account for factors such as cost of living.

There is also evidence – although it remains correlative – that suggests the opposite. When specifically accounting for state-to-state differences like cost of living, data from the U.S. Census Bureau’s 2015 “Supplemental Poverty Measure” showed virtually no difference in poverty rates between right-to-work states and non-right-to-work states.

In the end, it’s important to realize that unions rely on ignoring one of the most fundamental laws of statistics to make their wage-and-poverty argument. After all, shark attacks go up along with increased ice cream consumption, too. But we all know there’s probably a more common geographical and seasonal reason for that.

3. Infant mortality rates are higher in right-to-work states.

Intended to scare even the most ardent legislators into opposing evil right-to-work laws, the “infant mortality” talking point takes correlative data to the next level.

Like poverty and wages, many factors – if not more factors – go into determining the infant mortality rate in a state. Some union leaders would have you believe the two are directly linked; in other words, that allowing employees to decline paying union dues poses a severe threat to babies’ lives.

But unless the unions are threatening the babies themselves, it’s hard to see how the two are connected.

4. Right-to-work allows employees to benefit from the union’s collective bargaining efforts without paying for the cost.

Although this argument is ultimately as untenable as the rest, it does land the closest to actually touching on the policy effects of right-to-work.

The “free rider” defense holds that because unions have an obligation to represent all employees in a bargaining unit, they must represent even nonmembers who decide to not pay dues. Thus, those employees are unjustly enjoying the benefits of a union contract without contributing to the cost.

It is true that unions are obligated to represent nonmembers. What they don’t tell you, of course, is that this obligation is self-imposed.

Many nonmembers who object to paying compulsory dues also object to being forced to accept the union’s representation. Yet even in right-to-work states, unions would rather allow “free riders” than relinquish their monopoly on workplace representation – which they could almost certainly do if they tried.

In fact, unions’ monopoly on workplace representation is one of the ways they attempt to justify forcing all employees to pay dues or fees. Often this is characterized as preserving “labor peace” – that is, preventing strikes and work stoppages.

However, not only does the data fail to show that compulsory unionism leads to fewer strikes and work stoppages (it actually shows the opposite), but it’s also a gross perversion of American principles to place preserving “labor peace” as a higher priority than protecting employees’ First Amendment rights.

For all the union talk about destroying the working class and subjecting infants to the murderous free-riding effects of right-to-work laws, the reality is that these laws really just do one thing – allow employees to choose whether to pay union dues or fees.

Freedom of association is an important principle embodied in the First Amendment that, if everything goes as expected, the U.S. Supreme Court will vote to protect in Janus v. AFCSME. Compulsory unionism remains one of the last remaining clear violations of this freedom, and unfortunately, Big Labor’s staunch opposition to right-to-work shows that it intends to keep it that way.

But Americans won’t be fooled. The more we can understand and defend the principles from which freedom is derived, the more we can ensure that opportunity and individual liberty flourishes in our country. And right-to-work is an important stepping stone to getting there.

Research & Government Affairs Associate
Ben Straka serves as a Research and Government Affairs Associate for the Freedom Foundation, where his responsibilities include an array of policy research and reform efforts aimed at supporting the organization’s mission through legislative advocacy and public policy expertise. His work has been published in various local news outlets throughout the Pacific Northwest and the country, and he has appeared as a guest on radio programs such as The Lars Larson Show, among others. He has regularly testified before the Oregon State Legislature on matters of labor policy and government transparency, has advised local government leaders on labor relations, and has represented employees in administrative proceedings under the state’s collective bargaining laws. Ben first joined the Freedom Foundation in 2016, and holds additional professional experience in the fields of real estate development and construction. He is a native of Eugene, Ore. and a graduate of Corban University, where he studied political science and business. He lives in Oregon with his wife.