California Congressman Brad Sherman (D) has introduced legislation to repeal right-to-work laws in the twenty-two states that have them, including Kansas. Right-to-work laws were created in 1947 as part of the Taft-Hartley Act, which amended the National Labor Relations Act of 1935. “Right-to-work” refers to the right of states to prohibit closed shops, a workplace that requires a worker to be a member of a labor union and to pay dues to that union.
Workers can form unions in right-to-work states but individual workers have the right to opt out and not pay dues. In states without right-to-work laws, unions can force employers to fire any worker who does not pay dues.
From 1935 until 1947, it was legal for closed shops to exist. If you wanted a job in a unionized factory, you had to join the union. Congress then passed the Taft-Hartley Act, restricting the power of union political action committees and allowing states to pass right-to-work laws. Taft-Hartley has been the law governing labor relations ever since.
Labor unions have been trying to repeal Taft-Hartley since 1947, but they have been unable to do so as a coalition of Southern Democrats and Republicans blocked repeal. Sherman’s new legislation can be seen as a continuation of that cat-and-mouse game in Congress.
Private sector union membership has declined since the mid-1950s, especially as companies shifted production to lower-cost states in the Sun Belt. Robotics, automation, and globalization of the world economy put employers with high-cost manufacturing and industrial workers at a serious competitive disadvantage. Private sector union membership was once as high as 45 percent of the workforce but today it’s around 15 percent.
Unions blame right-to-work laws for their plight. But increasingly the number of union jobs declined because the companies where unions were dominant — the Big Three auto makers for instance — could not remain competitive under the old economic model. High wages, pension and health benefits hurt the ability of companies governed by the closed shop to compete. Steve Miller, chairman of Delphi Corporation (a General Motors spinoff) when it was going through bankruptcy, said the company simply couldn’t compete with its $65-per-hour “all-in” labor cost (pay and benefits for current and retired employees).
Let’s look at some facts from the Bureau of Labor Statistics. From 1999 to 2009, right-to-work states have added 1.5 million private sector jobs for a 3.7 percent increase; states which are not right-to-work lost 1.8 million jobs over the same decade, for a decline of 2.3 percent. Some states, like Michigan and Ohio, home of the powerful United Auto Workers Union, have hemorrhaged private sector jobs, declining 17 percent and 10 percent respectively over that time period.
Is this what Congressman Sherman wants to see in the rest of the country? The facts clearly show that jobs in right-to-work states are growing, not declining and some of those jobs are union jobs. Congressman Sherman’s bill to repeal right-to-work laws is aimed only at protecting unions, not at allowing Americans the right to work.
The question here is simply about individual liberty. Should the individual worker have the right to decide whether to pay dues to a union, or should that decision be forced on him by others?
This bill strips individuals of their personal liberty and it should be voted down.
Dr. Greg Schneider is a Senior Fellow with the Kansas Policy Institute and an associate professor of history at Emporia State University. He has been published widely and is the author or editor of three books on the history of conservatism.