Jason Hart and Vincent Vernuccio: Right to work by the numbers

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By Jason Hart

and F. Vincent Vernuccio

As the rhetoric in Charleston heats up with Senate action last Thursday, it’s important to remember what worker freedom is — and is not.

Right-to-work simply means a union cannot get a worker fired for not paying union fees. It does not affect collective bargaining in any other way.

Unions and workers can still bargain with employers over wages, hours, working conditions, pensions and anything else they could bargain over before right-to-work.

Right-to-work has helped other states. They have higher wage growth, more job growth, higher population growth and historically lower unemployment. Almost all right-to-work states have lower workplace injury rates than West Virginia, too.

Right-to-work can even strengthen unions. How is that? It makes them more responsive to members because they now cannot take forced dues for granted. Instead, they need to earn the voluntary support of their members by becoming better.

Indiana is one example of this dynamic. In 2014 Indiana tied for the state with the most new union members when it added 50,000 new dues-paying members.

The West Virginia AFL-CIO says right-to-work will mean pay cuts for workers; union officials in Indiana and Michigan said the same, but average wages increased in both states after they implemented right-to-work.

Since Indiana became a right-to-work state in 2012, its average wage increased faster than West Virginia’s.

From 2012, the year Michigan passed right-to-work, until mid-2015, incomes in Michigan rose over nine percent, faster than West Virginia and the national average.

From 2012-14, average hourly wages increased by 56 cents to $19.94 in Indiana, by 56 cents to $21.70 in Michigan, but only by 37 cents to $18.21 in West Virginia.

Similar misconceptions have been thrown around regarding workplace safety.

In 2001, Oklahoma became a right-to-work state. The year before, it reported 6.6 nonfatal workplace injuries and illnesses per 100,000 full-time private sector employees. By 2012, that rate had dropped to 3.6 per 100,000, and in the last three years, Oklahoma’s rate for fatal workplace injuries has been lower than West Virginia’s.

West Virginia’s fatal workplace injury rate in 2013, at 8.6 per 100,000, was more than double the national rate of 3.3 per 100,000, and higher than that of all but two right-to-work states.

The most straightforward measure of economic activity is job growth, and here again, right-to-work states shine.

From September 2001, when Oklahoma’s law went into effect, to November 2015, seven of the 10 states with the fastest job growth were right-to-work.

In that time, Oklahoma’s private sector employment has grown by 8.5 percent. Private sector employment in West Virginia, meanwhile, has grown by less than 1 percent.

Indiana has seen faster job growth than West Virginia and 28 other states since implementing right-to-work. Michigan’s job growth is the 16th best in the nation since becoming a right-to-work state — after spending nearly a decade as the state with arguably the worst economy.

Another way to measure opportunity in the states is to see how Americans vote with their feet.

In December, the Census Bureau reported that seven states lost population between July 2014 and July 2015. Only one was a right-to-work state.

Statistics from Allied Van Lines show which states families are moving to. Four of the top five states in 2015 were right-to-work states.

Census and moving company data are reinforced by numbers from the Department of Labor: since 2001, the seven states with the fastest labor force growth are all right-to-work states. The labor force grew by 14.6 percent (8 million people) in right-to-work states but only 5.8 percent (4.7 million people) in forced unionization states.

Oklahoma’s labor force grew by more than 6.5 percent during this period, while West Virginia’s shrank by 2.4 percent. Since 2009, Michigan had the largest unemployment rate drop in the nation, falling almost 10 points. This is thanks in large part to right-to-work passing in 2012, plus other reforms.

Right-to-work sends a message to job creators that a state is pro-worker and pro-business. West Virginia, with an unemployment rate that is one of the worst in the country, citizens leaving and wage growth far below the national average, desperately needs to send this message.

And regardless of all the positive economic data from states with similar laws, right-to-work is still about one thing: freedom.

Jason Hart is a reporter for Michigan Capitol Confidential and F. Vincent Vernuccio is the director of labor policy for the Mackinac Center for Public Policy, a Michigan-based research institution.

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