clock menu more-arrow no yes

Right-to-work: the anti-union laws now on the books in 25 states

Getty Images

Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker signed a right-to-work bill on Monday, a move will help cement his reputation as a fierce union opponent and make Wisconsin the 25th "right-to-work" state. Right-to-work laws have spread in fits and starts over seven decades, and they are perpetually controversial, not least because they are another force that further weakens organized labor in the US.

What does it mean if a state is "right to work"?

"Right to work" sounds like it has something to do with securing employment. It doesn't. A union is required to represent every worker covered by its contract, including workers who aren't dues-paying members. Right-to-work laws prevent unions from forcing workers they represent to pay fees or dues. (One explanation for the origin of the phrase "right to work" is that the laws allow a person to work through a strike, as Slate's Brian Palmer explains.)

Right-to-work advocates have a number of arguments for why the laws are important: one is that the laws protect workers' rights by giving them the choice of whether to pay union dues. Another is that the laws create a business-friendly atmosphere, enticing employers to move into the state.

Union advocates, meanwhile, say right-to-work laws create a free-rider problem — an example would be a workplace in which only half the workers pay union dues but the union secures a raise for all workers. Those non-union members get the benefits of a union without having paid for the representation. The larger issue is the natural extension of the free-rider problem: if too many members don't pay dues, the union will collapse.

As of 2014, 14.6 million American workers were union members, or around 11.1 percent of US employees. But 16.2 million (12.3 percent) were represented by unions, a difference of around 1.6 million, according to the Labor Department.

What's the effect of these laws? Do they cause declines in union membership?

There is evidence that right-to-work laws contribute to the broader trend of declining union rates. A 2011 study from economists Ozkan Eren and I. Serkan Ozbeklik, for example, found that a right-to-work law cut union membership in Oklahoma. Another 1987 study found that right-to-work laws have a big initial impact on union organizing that later diminishes.

And these laws can weaken a union in a few ways. When paying dues isn't compulsory, the unions have fewer resources. And if the union is already weakened, there can be a snowball effect: it's less effective, meaning it has fewer people who want to join.

States with right-to-work laws indeed have much lower union membership rates than states without those laws. As of 2011, right-to-work states had a 5.7 percent membership rate, compared with 15.8 percent in union security states (those without right-to-work laws).

But then, other factors account for the decline of unions as well — some possibilities include the decline of unionized industries (like manufacturing) and globalization. Right-to-work laws probably contribute to lower unionization rates, but, for example, those right-to-work states had lower union membership rates than the non-right-to-work states even before the right-to-work laws were passed, according to a 2013 Congressional Research Service report.

What do right-to-work laws mean for workers?

This is where it gets complicated. Right-to-work states tend to have lower wages than other states, and they also have tended to have faster job growth in recent years. But — and this is a big but — economists have had some difficulty showing exactly to what extent right-to-work laws create these effects...and it may also vary by state and industry.

That 2013 CRS report, for example, concluded that right-to-work states have tended to have higher job growth and lower wages. And some academic research that tries to control for the many factors that affect wages has confirmed this: a 2011 study from the left-leaning Economic Policy Institute did find that wages in non-right-to-work states were 3.2 percent higher than in right-to-work states, after controlling for demographic and economic factors. Likewise, a 2007 study from Hofstra University found lower wages in right-to-work states.

But other studies find a negative effect or no effect. Indeed, the CRS report also notes there is mixed evidence on wages and, likewise, that it's "unclear" whether right-to-work laws created job growth or if "other pro-business policies (which tend to be concentrated in RTW states), or other factors" did so. It may depend on the state or the industry — that 2011 study from Eren and Ozbeklik, for example, found that a right-to-work law had no effect on manufacturing employment in Oklahoma but increased employment in Idaho. There were also only "positive to some extent" increases in foreign investment in Oklahoma and "inconclusive" investment results in Idaho.

And if right-to-work laws do create more job growth, it may simply mean that right-to-work states attract businesses away from non-right-to-work states, meaning one state improves at the expense of another.

Is "right-to-work" popular nationwide?

Wisconsin will now become the 25th right-to-work state. Here's how the map of right-to-work states will look once Walker signs the bill.

right to work

(Anand Katakam / Vox)

Broadly speaking, the spread of right-to-work laws has been slow. Eleven states enacted right-to-work laws in 1947, after the Taft-Hartley Act was passed (in addition, Florida had passed a right-to-work law in 1943, but exactly what that law meant was "unclear" until Taft-Hartley, CRS explains). That act places restrictions on a variety of union activities, like striking, and also allowed for right-to-work states. Six more states joined in the '50s. The number of states adopting the laws slowed for a long time, but the past few years have seen an acceleration. Since 2000, four states have passed right to work laws: Oklahoma (2001), Indiana (2012), Michigan (2012), and now Wisconsin.