Do Right-To-Work Laws Actually Help Workers -- Or Management?

Michigan right-to-work law protested.

It should come as no surprise that activists on the left are pushing for unions to adopt new strategies to broaden their appeal -- and clout. After all, the number of Americans who are part of an organized union has dropped from a third of the country's workers in the 1950s to only about a tenth last year.

Some conservatives, meanwhile, have been calling for a radical overhaul, arguing that compulsory union dues make corporations less profitable by steering money to unions that could go into keeping companies healthy for everyone, including workers. And so they've been championing right-to-work laws, like the one passed in Michigan this week. Michigan is the 24th state in the country to adopt such laws, which make it illegal to mandate workers to join unions or pay union dues.

Proponents Claim Right To Work Laws 'Empower' Workers

That's the argument used by Michigan Gov. Rick Snyder, who stressed that the laws give workers the right to decide whether to join the union. It was also the rationale cited by Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker, who pushed through a law in 2011 that restricted the ability of public employees to bargain collectively. The Wisconsin law, which Walker said would help small businesses in the state, was found by a county judge not to apply to city, county and school district workers, but left intact for state employees.

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Proponents also point to a 2010 study by the libertarian think tank, the Cato Institute, which found that income per capita was 23 percent higher in right-to-work states as compared to states without such laws. "Labor unions used to represent common muscle. Workers who essentially all had the same skills," says Tim Kane, the chief economist at the Hudson Institute, a right-leaning Washington D.C.-based think tank. "But now you have a diversified workforce with individual workers who have individual skill sets and ambitions. Giving the voice back to the individual seems balanced. Such a view is not a loss of union strength, it's just an evolution."

A Wall Street Journal editorial, meanwhile, argued that compelling all workers to join a union will "extract monopoly wages and benefits for a time from a profitable industry." But over time, that will come at a cost -- making the industry less competitive and eventually eliminating union jobs.

Conservatives: Unions Are To Blame For Corporate Failures

Many on the right point to Hostess Brands' recent shutdown to make that argument. "How much did the employees of Hostess benefit from their unions?" asks James Sherk, the senior labor policy analyst at the right-leaning think tank, the Heritage Foundation, after the maker of Twinkies, Ding Dongs and Ho Ho's closed after 82 years.

The Hostess closure put more than 18,000 people out of work and occurred after the Bakery, Confectionery, Tobacco Workers and Grain Millers International Union and management failed to reach an agreement on a new contract.

Management wanted to slash workers' wages by 8 percent. Critics from the right defended the move by pointing out that the company's agreement with the union required Hostess to support 80 different health plans, according to Forbes. "Labor needs to be less focused on extracting profits in an us versus them mentality," says Sherk, "and more on adding value to make workers more productive [through training programs]."

But What About The Thousands Of Workers Protesting The Laws?

Of course many workers would respond that the problem is hardly that America's working class is earning too much -- but too little. Indeed, the most visible supporters of the law are not rank-and-file employees, but Republican politicians and business executives. "Since when does our governor determine what is right for the working class?" Cindy Samuel, a medical transcriptionist from Mainstee, Mich., asked on Yahoo News in objecting to the passage of the right-to-work law in her state. Samuel explained her view:

"Right-to-work doesn't mean more jobs are coming to Michigan. It could mean more would leave along with the people who could potentially lose jobs. ... While the right to collectively bargain is supposedly federally protected, that doesn't mean all employees are going to be treated equally in terms of job protection, wages or benefits."

And just this week, an estimated 12,500 rallied in Lansing, Mich., against the right-to-work laws. The protesters (pictured above) -- many of them teachers -- raised concerns that these laws would weaken unions, which in turn would erode their wages.

The rallies also took place in the wake of a series of recent protests by workers -- representing a broad range of sectors -- who've been speaking out for a living wage, among other social justice causes. The protests have included walkouts by fast food workers in New York City and Walmart employees nationwide.

President Obama, meanwhile, has expressed support. In speaking about the right-to-work law while touring Michigan, the president said, "what they're really talking about is giving you the right to work for less money."

Rick Snyder: Right To Work Bills Signed Into Law In Michigan

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so they said rtw states pay 25% more. Where did they get their information, fox news. Of The 20 states with the highest median wages, only 3 are right to work states. That's according to the census bureau. Have you seen the latest data from the epa. Rtw states put out much more carbon emission per capita than cb states(pollution). Rtw work states have far more industrial deaths per capita than cb states. RTW states have fewer people with medical coverage per capita than cb states. So if you want lower wages, less medical coverage, more pollution and safety is not a concern then rtw is golden

June 11 2014 at 2:59 AM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply

I read the comments here and just have to ask myself what people think has given this country the standard of living it once had. When people went to work for a good union wage they raised their kids in a home where there was plenty of food, decent clothes, and a good education. What a deal this is! The corporate leaders can sit back and laugh because they have average people out here fighting unions for them. They believe people should fend for themselves while corporations have lawyers and managers hired to find ways to make them wealthier and make the employees live on lower and lower wages. Without unions and higher wages one of two things happens. One: Corporate leaders get wealthier until the well goes dry and no one can afford their products on the lower wages. Or Two: No one can survive on the lower wages and turns to their government for help, which raises taxes on those that already can't afford to pay them. When will we overturn these right to work laws and rid ourselves of the people we elected to work for us that push for these laws of corporate greed?

August 13 2013 at 8:40 PM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply

I live in a right to work state and wages are low.

August 13 2013 at 3:23 PM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply

Give the unions the same right to make it fair. Let the union have the right to not represent non dues paying workers. Let the non dues paying workers be forced to accept the wages and benefits that the company is willing to give them not what the dues payers get. Would not this help the company save money which is why they are claiming the right to work clause?

June 02 2013 at 2:31 AM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply

I live in Indiana and all I can see that right to work has done is to allow a company to fire you before your 90 days are up so they don't have to pay benefits . We also have a lot of new low wage jobs that work you 70 to 80 hours and 7 days a week .So if this is what your looking for right to work is the way to go.

December 23 2012 at 1:10 PM Report abuse +3 rate up rate down Reply

Governor Rick Snyder says, …. if workers see no "value" in unions they should not have to pay union dues.
Oh! Happy Day for those workers who are attracted, not to those employment opportunities in a low wage job, but they do see this "value" in an employment opportunity making a good living wage, not having to pay their fair share in union representation. Not one penny, in recognition of the livable wage he or she is about to receive, and acknowledging some support for what unions fought for, and who will continue to fight for, health benefits, safe working conditions, retirement benefits, a living wage, worker representation.
Realizing the “value” choice these workers made, with good safe working conditions and benefits, they can now feel secure in stable wages, and now, maybe for the first time, or in a long while, being able to feed and care for their families. Being able to purchase those things that a living wage offers. Living the American dream. Perhaps now, being able to put a down payment on a home? Being able to sleep at night. All this because he or she made the right "value" choice and decided to rather than take a job opportunity with lower wages, with no benefits, no value, these workers realize without too much thought, there is “value” in a union environment, and with no union participation whatsoever to support the very environment that choices in what "value” offers. One which fosters good working conditions now, and into the future. The other without.
The worker choosing “value“, Governors Snyder’s logic, one would think the worker be responsive, to play fair. But “right to work” is not about what’s fair.
One then wonders, why is the police and fire unions exempt? Why not make this “value” thing fair for everybody while we are destroying unions? Where is this “equal protection” of Article 1 of the Michigan Constitution speaks of?
The argument that “right to work” is a solution to unemployment levels, really? Right to work state employment levels have absolutely not a thing to do with a worker’s right to work! How does ones work or “right to work” effect overall employment if either the business or the state is unable to attract new business? A worker has no control of this. What should matter to the worker, given his or her opportunity, responsibility and abilities, is the participation and contribution towards the process of obtaining better working conditions. Letting others contribute and make life easier in order to provide a living wage for you and your family is not “right to work” but is what is now, as some consider the 47% solution.
Corporations lobby their political allies in Congress and state legislatures to oppose and destroy unions in order to dictate what’s best for the worker. To make the worker subordinate in order to profit off of worker low wages that this would bring. Is this not the argument rather than the unemployment issue?
To subordinate that very same worker who, if not for his labor, his labor down on the factory floor making the product, these companies would not see the profits that they enjoy. There would be no company.
My advice to those who this applies to, you make that job choice, but when you go to bed at night, before you fall asleep, think about your “values“ in not supporting those others who sacrificed and made it possible for you to enjoy and benefit in what your choice in “values” has made possible. Have a good sleep.

December 20 2012 at 8:29 AM Report abuse +1 rate up rate down Reply


After almost a century of union busting and union formation, with blood on both sides, where is the data? The CATO institute broadside quoted does not stand for the fact that per capita income is 23% higher; that number is a theoretical extrapolation form a theoretical difference in a theoretical rate of change analysis. Just taking 4 states, all large, 50/50 right to work and not the "nons" - California (43,104) and 'New York, (48,821) - both of which are "in extremis" because they are liberal - trump the RTW Texas (39,493) & Florida (39,272). If the RTW were to give a huge benefit to the average worker one would expect it to show up in those large states. It is not dispositive evidence, but it is indicative that the matter of per capita income might be more complex than RTW versus "non".

This entire debate is tragic. You could take the example of the guy who lived to be 102 while smoking a pack a day to say that smoking is good for you and make public policy from that example. Or you could take the whole data set on smoking which shows early death and expensive illness caused by smoking and look at that before making public policy. The later is clearly better. But arguing from "belief" and "anecdote" is what is being done. Emotion, the greed of the employer class versus the desire for certainty of the employee class, instead of reason rules.

Maybe RTW is a great idea. Maybe it isn't. Maybe the fact that every authoritarian government for the last 100 years has crushed unions means something. Maybe the fact that Germany rising from the ashes, which is now "the model for everybody", puts union members on the boards of companies means something. Maybe not.

December 19 2012 at 2:05 PM Report abuse +1 rate up rate down Reply

People vote for congress to steal for them.

They prefer that others work overtime so they don't have to work at all.

If they run out of workers, they pass the burden of their lazines to the next generation.

That has become the American way.

December 19 2012 at 10:49 AM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply

Think for a minute - the people in politics who represent corporate interests over workers interests all the time are the people telling workers this right to work law is good for them - it is not. All it is is the corporation taking players off of the opposing teams roster - which makes the opposing team weaker overall and which will mean less bargaining power and in turn lower wages.

Yea Real good for you.

Try applying that as a "member" of the Chamber of Commerce - the business mens union - join there and get the benefits and try to not pay your fair dues AND SEE WHAT LAWS THEY PASS ABOUT IT THEN.

It is an anti-worker law with a pro worker sounding name.....brought to us by rich people..

December 15 2012 at 9:09 PM Report abuse +4 rate up rate down Reply
Hello Sean ;)

Workers do NOT have to be part of a union to organize and get employers to capitulate to demands. No dues are needed and no political pay-offs required.

Unions aer a smoke and mirrors game of organized crime.

December 15 2012 at 10:54 AM Report abuse -4 rate up rate down Reply
1 reply to Hello Sean ;)'s comment

Name one place where non union workers have a voice at the table

Funny thing about this when workers complain the Right Business owners tell them it is their choice but is it really

When you look at history no one person can deny the US became an example for the world because the Unions made collective bargaining a powerful tool
In places with out collective bargaining we have the 5! people in total control of everything

That's the real plan the conservatives lost the election because the country does not believe the top 1% should be treated better so what is their response. Destroy those who speak the truth by weakening their voice

I see this as a complete fundamental break down of what was once the best system

December 15 2012 at 11:19 AM Report abuse +4 rate up rate down Reply

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