The truth behind Right to Work laws

Michigan is the latest state to start lobbying for Right to Work laws. Here's a look at their coalition's news conference yesterday.

When I first learned about Right to Work laws, I thought they sounded like a good idea. The right to make your own decision always sounds like a good idea to me. Right to Work laws make union membership optional instead of mandatory. Employees can choose whether or not they want to pay dues to the union. Sounds okay, right? A qualified worker shouldn't be denied a job just because he cannot pay dues or doesn't want to, right? And another argument is that some companies avoid operating in states with compulsory union laws, and therefore those states are being deprived of much needed jobs. So it sounds like people advocating for Right to Work laws are desperate for employment opportunities and don't want companies to be scared away by union laws.

But right to work laws mandate that unions still protect all employees, even if they don't pay dues to the union. That's pretty cool, but is it fair to the actual members who pay dues? If you can still get the benefits of being in a union without paying dues, where is the incentive to become a member? It seems to me that, under Right to Work laws, all union members would drop their membership, because there wouldn't be a difference between protection for union members and non-union members. For example, if a non-union member is wrongfully terminated, the union still has to defend them, using their time and money on someone who doesn't pay dues.

The National Right to Work Legal Defense Foundation claims that states with Right to Work laws (there are currently 22 of them) have "greater economic vitality" and lower unemployment rates on average. But the AFL-CIO (which refers to these laws as "Right to Work for Less" laws) says workers in Right to Work states experience lower wages, higher instances of poverty, and more workplace injuries than states without the laws. The AFL-CIO also warns that the "freedom to choose" argument is just a big sham. It turns out that federal law already protects workers who don't want to join unions.

So now I'm confused. Are Right to Work laws really just part of a long-term plan to phase out unions? Are anti-union legislators just trying to manipulate workers into thinking they don't need to join a union? Are they trying to make unions seem like these awful things that are to blame for unemployment? That doesn't sound like a good idea to me anymore.