How right-to-work can make unions stronger


Right-to-work is not for or against unions. In fact, the only effect of right-to-work on collective bargaining is that it takes away a union’s ability to get a worker fired for not paying them.

In 1999 Robert P. Hunter, a Senior Fellow in Labor Policy for the Mackinac Center for Public Policy, created the Spectrum of Government Intervention in Organized Labor. On one side of the spectrum was government outlawing unions, labeling them a criminal conspiracy. On the other side was forcing all workers to be members of a union.

Hunter, taking a Goldilocks approach, said that the preferred place for government intervention in organized labor was in the middle: neutrality. Hunter maintained that government should not force or forbid anyone from joining (or associating with) a union.

While right-to-work is not completely neutral — workers can still be forced to accept representation from a union and employers are still obligated to negotiate with a union — it is a step closer to Hunter’s ideal.

With right-to-work, unions, workers and employers can still bargain over wages, hours, working conditions and everything else they typically bargain over.

The difference is that with right-to-work a union must earn the dues of its members.

By proving their worth to their membership and making them compete, right-to-work can make unions stronger. Combine this competition with right-to-work states adding more jobs — meaning there is more opportunity for union jobs — and the result is that union membership may grow faster in right-to-work states compared to non-right-to-work states.

In 2014, the right-to-work state of Indiana tied with the non-right-to-work state of Colorado for adding the most union members in the country.
Both states added 50,000 new union members each, according to data from the Bureau of Labor Statistics. The state that lost the most union members was the non-right-to-work state of Washington, which lost 55,000 members.

The ratio of which group of states adds more union members varies each year. In 2012, right-to-work states added 39,000 new members and non-right-to-work states lost 390,000. Other years, like last year, forced-unionism states come out ahead.

Even union officials are starting to take notice of the fact that right-to-work can help unions thrive.

As Gary Casteel, secretary-treasurer for the United Auto Workers recently noted:

“I’ve never understood (why) people think right to work hurts unions … To me, it helps them. You don’t have to belong if you don’t want to. So if I go to an organizing drive, I can tell these workers, ‘If you don’t like this arrangement, you don’t have to belong.’ Versus, ‘If we get 50 percent of you, then all of you have to belong, whether you like to or not.’ I don’t even like the way that sounds, because it’s a voluntary system, and if you don’t think the system’s earning its keep, then you don’t have to pay.”

A year after Michigan passed its right-to-work law, Doug Pratt, director of member and political engagement for the Michigan Education Association, said that right-to-work caused his union to increase their efforts to “explain to our members why membership is of value,” and that “We’re stronger because of it …”

Likewise John Beck, an associate professor in Michigan State University’s School of Human Resources and Labor Relations told the Livingston Daily:

“There’s an imperative now that really demands that unions pay more attention to (member engagement) than they have in the past. In that way, I don’t think that, by its very nature, [right-to-work is] the death knell. In fact, some would argue that it’s actually going to be kind of a needed shot in the arm.”

Right-to-work has little effect on collective bargaining, but can have major effects on the efficacy of union representation.

(F. Vincent Vernuccio is director of labor policy for the Mackinac Center for Public Policy, a research and educational institute based in Midland.)