Labor Unions and Right-to-Work Laws

Opponents of a right-to-work law fill the Wisconsin State Capitol rotunda in Madison, to protest that its passage will hurt businesses and lower wages, February 25, 2015.

Two trends in the history of labor in the United States are getting renewed attention in the wake of Wisconsin’s passage of a right-to-work (RTW) law. The first is the increasing number of states that have passed such legislation, which basically means that an individual worker has the right not to join a labor union or not to have to pay union dues as a condition of employment. An RTW law protects workers from dismissal from a job for electing to stay “non-union,” even if they are in effect represented by a union in negotiations with management.

Since the 1940s, the number of right-to-work states has gradually risen to 25, with the addition of Wisconsin. Geographically speaking, the South and Mountain West regions are solidly RTW, and the Plains and Midwest are mixed (though the last three states to pass RTW laws are all in the latter region). States on the West Coast (plus Alaska and Hawaii) and in the Northeast are solidly not RTW.

The second trend is the long-term decline in labor union membership. Membership in unions has fallen steadily as right-to-work laws have spread. In the half century from 1964 to 2014, the number of states in which at least a third of workers belonged to unions dropped from 16 to 0. Fifty years ago, nationwide, about 1 in 3 U.S. workers was in a union; today that figure is closer to 1 in 10. In 2014, the only states with a percentage of union membership above 20 are New York, Alaska, and Hawaii.

Debates over right-to-work legislation tend to center on the freedom of association, the “free rider” problem, and corporate influence. Also at issue are the potential effects, positive or negative, for a state’s economy, such as on job growth, wage levels, and unemployment rates.

Image credit: © AP Photo/Wisconsin State Journal, Amber Arnold

Related Links

  • Unions Suffer Latest Defeat in Midwest with Signing of Wisconsin Measure
    This article discusses the most recent shift toward “right to work” in the Midwest.
    (Source: New York Times, March 10, 2015)
  • 50 Years of Shrinking Union Membership, in One Map
    This interactive map details the decline of U.S. labor union membership over a 50-year period, as right-to-work legislation has extended to half the nation.
    (Source: NPR: Planet Money, February 23, 2015)
  • Right-to-Work Laws Lower Your Pay
    This editorial by the head of the AFL-CIO, the nation’s largest labor union, argues concisely against the right-to-work trend.
    (Source: USA Today, March 17, 2015)
  • Right-to-Work: A Measurable Boost for Wisconsin’s Economy
    This opinion piece sees Wisconsin’s recent move toward “right to work” as beneficial to the state’s economy, in keeping with similar outcomes in other states.
    (Source: Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, February 26, 2015)
  • Right-to-Work Law
    This encyclopedia article summarizes the pros and cons surrounding RTW laws, presenting findings of studies on economic impact; includes a U.S. map showing which states have RTW laws.
    (Source: Wikipedia; accessed March 23, 2015)

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