Few would remember that in 1944 while the United States was fighting Nazi Germany and Imperial Japan, the state of Florida adopted the nation’s first right to work law that gave workers in the state a constitutional right to opt-out of union membership. Despite giving workers the right to opt-out of union membership, the constitutional amendment also enshrined the rights of employees “through a labor organization, to bargain collectively.” Since 1944, 27 states have adopted right to work laws or constitutional amendments to “guarantee that no person can be compelled, as a condition of employment, to join or not to join, nor to pay dues to a labor union.” In 2021, right to work laws covered 2.8 million workers.
Despite overwhelming evidence that right to work laws benefit workers and lead to more job creation, labor unions and progressive politicians have sought to weaken or outright repeal these laws. The most recent attempt occurred on February 4, 2021,when Rep. Bobby Scott (D-VA03) reintroduced the Protecting the Right to Organize Act (PRO Act). A central plank of the PRO Act is that it would invalidate right-to-work laws across the country, force workers into union membership, and mandate they pay union dues that can amount to $400 each year.
The desire of unions to repeal right-to-work legislation ignores the overwhelming popularity of these laws. In February 2020, Americans For Prosperity found 68% of Virginia’s workforce supported the state’s right to work legislation. The same survey found that 60% opposed repealing Virginia’s right to work laws. In 2015, the University of Chicago found 62% of Wisconsinites supported the state’s right to work laws. And more broadly, 80% of Americans believe it is wrong to force American workers to pay union dues.
Studies have routinely shown that right to work legislation has resulted in higher wages for workers. This evidence directly counters union arguments that contend right to work laws depressed salaries. In his groundbreaking 2003 study, Walter Robert Reed of the University of Oklahoma- Norman found there was no uniform increase in wage increases across right to work states, and workers in right to work states saw “significantly higher wages than” states without right to work protections. Reed found Mississippi workers experienced the most significant wage increase because of right to work legislation, seeing their pay rise 22.6%.
Studies routinely also show that states who adopt right to work legislation experience significantly better private-sector job creation and lower unemployment than non-right-to-work states. A 2018 study, for example, by NERA economic consulting found that between 2001 and 2016 these right to work states experienced a 26.7% increase in private sector employment while non-right to work states only saw a 15.4% increase. Additionally, right to work states had an unemployment rate that was on average 0.4% lower than non-right to work states. This job creation is caused by private sector companies “who are more inclined to open plants” in states with right to work statutes. NERA estimates if non-right to work states adopted right-to-work legislation, “approximately 249,000 more people would have been employed.”
The economic impact of right to work legislation demonstrates they put the worker’s interests first, allowing them greater financial security through increased job availability and more spending power through higher wages. Passing the PRO Act would mean jeopardizing economic security right to work laws have provided.
It is also apparent that workers in right-to-work states are more satisfied than those in non-right-to-work states. A 2019 study by Christos A. Makridis from the University of Arizona found workers in right-to-work states experienced “increased individual well-being and economic optimism.” One potential explanation for this phenomenon is that “when workers don’t have to pay dues to be union members in right-to-work states, they can use the extra money to buy other things without impacting their union status.” In this scenario, workers can enjoy union protection, but experience higher incomes.
Passing the PRO Act would mean creating a dissatisfied workforce that is not only less productive but a significant drain on the wider U.S. economy. Recent research has estimated dissatisfied workers cast the U.S. economy between $450-$550 billion each year. While the prospects of the PRO Act becoming law are slim, given the Democrats do not possess a filibuster-proof majority in the U.S. Senate, the resurrection of the PRO Act does show legislators are willing to advance legislation that could be profoundly damaging to the American workers. Rather than pursuing legislation that will depress wages, cut job creation, and enhance worker dissatisfaction, lawmakers should instead be looking to advance an agenda that is not only pro-worker but can create a dynamic and vibrant economy.