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What Is the Right-to-Work Law Anyway?

Wisconsin looks to become the latest state to enact a right-to-work law. So what does a right-to-work law do, and is it effective?
The Wisconsin State Capitol building. (Photo: Ryan Wick/Wikimedia Commons)

The Wisconsin State Capitol building. (Photo: Ryan Wick/Wikimedia Commons)

Wisconsin appears set to become the country's next state to embrace the right-to-work law. The state Senate's Committee on Labor and Government Reform ended a public hearing on the issue early Tuesday, voting to send the bill on to the Republican-controlled full senate, which is expected to pass the measure next week. Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker, a Republican, promises to sign it into law. While it may seem hard to find fault with something called a “right-to-work” law, as many as 2,000 union supporters gathered in Wisconsin to rally against the new bill.

Right-to-work laws prevent unions from requiring workers to join or pay dues for their employment. Today, 24 states have such statutes in place. Proponents say the laws boost wages, improve the economy, and actually give right-to-work states a competitive edge by attracting laborers. Opponents say right-to-work laws lower wages, weaken the economy, and actually hurt laborers.

But what does the research say? (Spoiler: it’s frustratingly contradictory.)

In terms of economic growth, the average income in right-to-work states was 65 percent higher in 2012 than it was in 1977, but in states without those laws income was only 50 percent higher.

An analysis of the effect of right-to-work laws in 2014 by the Competitive Enterprise Institute found that in the first decade of the 21st century, (native-born) Americans tended to migrate to states with right-to-work laws, at a rate of more than 1,450 people per day from 2000 to 2009.

Using data from the Bureau of Economic Analysis that spanned a 35 year period between 1977 and 2012, the analysis found that, in terms of economic growth, the average income in right-to-work states was 65 percent higher in 2012 than it was in 1977, but in states without those laws income was only 50 percent higher. Overall, the study determined that if more states had enacted right-to-work laws back in 1977, we’d all be a little more well-off; thanks to a lack of right-to-work laws, by 2012 Americans across all states had lost an estimated $647.8 billion in potential income, or more than $2,000 each. Sounds great. I could definitely use an extra $2,000 in my bank account. So why don’t more states have right-to-work laws?

Probably because plenty of other studies suggest that unions actually increase worker wages. As Lydia DePillis reported for the Washington Post, in industries with strong unions, unionized workers made 13.6 percent more than non-members and unions protected workers against income inequality. “A 2011 study attributed a fifth to a third of increased income inequality among men to the decline in union representation between 1973 and 2007,” DePillis wrote. “That’s about as much as the contribution of increased college education to raising wages at the top.”

A 2011 briefing from the Economic Policy Institute found that right-to-work laws can undercut unions, which use the resources they collect from member and non-member workers to negotiate better benefits and protections for all laborers. Employees in states with right-to-work laws made about $1,500 less than similar workers in states without such laws and were less likely to have employer-sponsored health insurance or pensions, according to the EPI. States without right-to-work laws are more productive and have higher Gross Domestic Product estimates—a common measure of standard of living—than right-to-work states, according to the National Education Association.

So should Wisconsin become the 25th right-to-work state in the United States? It's hard to see a chunk of your hard-earned income go to unions, especially if you're not a member of one, but keep in mind that most unions represent non-members in situations like workplace grievances. In the end it may be to the benefit of Wisconsinites to keep their unions strong.