GUEST COLUMN

The ‘right to work’ – for lower pay

Posted Feb. 19, 2011, at 2:08 a.m.

Right-to-work, despite its name, is not a policy that empowers working people. In reality, according to scholarly studies of this issue, so-called “right-to-work” represents a movement whose main purpose centers on lowering wages, restricting the rights of workers, and weakening the long-standing principles of free collective bargaining in the U.S. With Maine’s workers and families already in economic distress, such a law could jeopardize Maine’s economic growth, and would only give workers the “right to work” for lower pay, with few or no benefits.

There are many misconceptions about right-to-work laws, and the term itself is highly misleading. It has nothing to do with worker “rights” to a job, a safe workplace, a voice at work, or decent pay. Unfortunately, many unsupported claims and misconceptions about right to work are likely to be heard as this issue is proposed in our state Legislature.

What is “right to work”? A right-to-work law prohibits employers and employees in a unionized workplace from negotiating a “union security clause.” This clause requires that all workers who receive the benefits of a collective bargaining agreement pay their “fair share” of the costs of union representation. Maine has rejected such a law numerous times in the past.

Maine is one of the 28 “free-bargaining” states in the U.S. in which employers and unions can freely negotiate an agreement obligating both union and nonunion members to pay their share of the costs of negotiating and maintaining the collective bargaining agreement. This would change if right-to-work advocates are successful in their quest to make our state a right-to-work state, joining the ranks of 22 other states (none in the Northeast) which currently have such laws.

Mainers deserve to know more about this issue, and its implications for Maine.

Right-to-work laws are essentially unfair. If Maine passed a right-to-work law, nonunion employees in a unionized workplace would have a “free ride.” They would receive the benefits of union representation, in terms of job protections, wages and benefits, without paying for any of the costs.

The 22 states with right-to-work laws have lower incomes and reduced wages, on average, compared to free-bargaining states. For example, in 2009, the median weekly earnings of full-time workers in free-bargaining states ($771) was 13.4 percent higher, on average, than in right-to-work states ($680). Similarly, the average annual pay for workers in all industries was 14.1 percent higher in free-bargaining states ($44,707), on average, than in right-to-work states ($39,169).

Fully half of all right-to-work states — 11 out of 22 — have poverty rates over 15 percent. The average poverty rate for all of these states combined is also 15 percent. In contrast, only six of the 28 free-bargaining states have poverty rates over 15 percent, and the average for this group is 12.8 percent.

A right-to-work law is not needed to protect nonunion workers. Several federal laws already protect the rights of nonunion employees in unionized workplaces, such as the NLRB vs. General Motors Supreme Court decision in 1963, and the Communication Workers vs. Beck decision of 1988. Under federal labor law, workers cannot be legally required to join a union as part of a collective bargaining contract.

Unions are legally required to represent all workers covered by a collective bargaining agreement fairly, equitably and responsibly, whether they belong to the union or not. This responsibility is known as the Duty of Fair Representation. A union can be sued for failing to meet its DFR responsibilities, or charged with an unfair labor practice.

Right-to-work laws can actually hamper economic growth. One study found that “states that became right-to-work states tended to experience slower growth after adopting right-to-work legislation.” Another economic study shows that the lower wages in right-to-work states are not simply explained by lower costs of living in these states.

Ironically, with a right-to-work law, government essentially would be interfering with the rights of workers and management to freely negotiate over this issue.

The evidence suggests that the right to work for less is likely to make things worse, not better, for Maine’s workers, families and economy.

William Murphy is director of the Bureau of Labor Education at the University of Maine. Valerie Carter is a research associate and sociologist at the bureau. The full briefing paper and statistical table for this article are available at http://dll.umaine.edu/ble/pubs.

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