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Right-to-work studies say many things, but agree it's bad for unions

How do you feel about unions?

Ignore the rest of the bluster — from both sides — about right-to-work legislation, and answer that question. The answer to that question will determine what you think about right to work.

Are unions a driver of the middle class, giving working people some power against big corporations, providing decent wages, good benefits and safe working conditions?

Or do unions antagonize and drive away business, existing only for the benefit of their officers and to promote their politics?

There are dozens of studies on the effects of right-to-work laws, and they say all sorts of things. They agree with each other, they contradict each other, they talk past each other.

But the one thing that almost every reputable study agrees on is that right-to-work laws are bad for unions. They lower union membership and finances, which, eventually, lessens union bargaining power.

“This is going to be the most divisive piece of legislation that'll be passed in my lifetime,” Ken Hall, president of Teamsters Local 175 and the Teamsters' International Secretary-Treasurer, said Thursday.

“Yes, it's divisive, hard things are divisive,” Senate Majority Leader Mitch Carmichael, R-Jackson, said Friday.

Right-to-work laws allow employees at unionized workplaces to opt out of paying union fees, even though they work under a union-negotiated and administered contract. Under federal law, unions must represent every employee in a unionized workplace, even those that, in right-to-work states, opt out of paying union fees. Workers in any state, regardless of right-to-work status, do not have to become a union member or pay for a union's political activities.

There are two basic questions about right-to-work laws: Are they fair, both to individual workers and to unions; and how do they affect the economy?

Right-to-work proponents, largely Republicans, argue that right-to-work is about fairness: Why should somebody have to pay union fees if they don't want to?

“If the union brings value, then I believe that workers will say, 'Yeah, I want to pay my dues,'” Senate President Bill Cole, R-Mercer, said. “If they don't bring value, at least in that worker's eyes, I think that same worker should have the option to say, 'No, I don't want to do that.'”

Opponents, largely Democrats, say that's naive and that right-to-work creates a free-rider problem: Why would anyone pay union fees if they can get the same union-negotiated contract and benefits without paying?

“If you go to a golf course and they say you don't have to pay the greens fees, you might have some old timers say, 'By God, I gotta pay,'” said Nick Dobbs, a local organizer with the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers. “But most people are going to say, 'I get to play for free? Well, let's go.' It doesn't mean the golf course was providing bad service.”

The other issue is economic.

Do right-to-work laws attract employers to a state — drawn by the promise of weakened unions — and create jobs?

Do those weakened unions mean lower wages and worse working conditions because workers have weaker representation?

Last year, the Republican-led Legislature, eager to pass a right-to-work law, asked West Virginia University's Bureau of Business and Economic Research to examine the issue.

The WVU study, funded by the Republican Legislature, found that right-to-work policies lead to employment growth of about 0.4 percent greater than non-right-to-work states.

The study found that wages were lower in right-to-work states but did not find evidence showing that was caused by right-to-work laws.

On Thursday, as the state Senate began considering its right-to-work bill (SB 1), a national think tank that gets about one-quarter of its funding from unions released an analysis pointing out what it said were serious flaws in the WVU study, undermining its conclusions.

That think tank, the Economic Policy Institute, has done copious research on right-to-work laws, research which shows they have little-to-no effect on creating jobs, and that they lower wages.

John Deskins, the author of the WVU study, acknowledged one error, disputed others, and said, in any case, they didn't affect the study's conclusions.

“You can find many right-to-work studies from think tanks, both left-leaning and right-leaning,” Deskins wrote in response. “It is quite a coincidence that all of the studies from left-leaning think tanks indicate that right to work is bad, while all the ones from right-leaning think tanks are good, don't you think?”

The problem is, it's not just research from politically active think tanks that is all over the map.

Independent, academic studies agree on very little when it comes to the purported effects of right to work.

In July, two economics professors from Louisiana State University and Claremont McKenna University published an analysis of Oklahoma's 2001 switch to a right-to-work state.

They found that the switch decreased the membership of private sector unions. “Several other state outcomes, including employment rate and private sector average wages, on the other hand, were not affected by right to work laws,” Ozkan Eren and Serkan Ozbeklik wrote, in the peer-reviewed Journal of Policy Analysis and Management. (The WVU study was not peer reviewed.)

Three years earlier, the same two authors wrote that their studies of Idaho's right-to-work law “suggest the laws increased the manufacturing employment, while it had no effect on per capita income.”

A 2005 study of Idaho and Oklahoma found that adopting right-to-work laws could have the effect of decreasing wages of non-union workers.

That study, published in the peer-reviewed Industrial and Labor Relations Review, found that wages in Idaho for non-union workers dropped by 4.2 percent, relative to non-right-to-work states, but found no statistically significant change in Oklahoma.

“This result is consistent with the thesis that the introduction of the right-to-work law in Idaho reduced the threat of union organization, resulting in lower earnings for non-union workers and an increase in the union wage gap,” author Henry Farber, a Princeton economist, wrote.

A 2007 study from a professor at the Hofstra University school of business concluded that right-to-work states were more attractive to business, but offered significant caveats.

“This does not necessarily translate into enhanced economic verve in the right-to-work state if there is little 'trickle-down' from business owners to the non-unionized workers,” Lonnie Stevans wrote in the Review of Law & Economics, which is peer-reviewed. “Findings are that the number of businesses and self-employed are greater on average in right-to-work states, but employment, wages and per-capita personal income are all lower on average in right-to-work states.”

A 1996 paper published by the Federal Reserve Bank of Minneapolis and the University of Minnesota found that in border counties, between right-to-work states and non-right-to-work states, the right-to-work states tended to have significantly more manufacturing activity.

Is that the result of right-to-work laws, or other aspects of state policy?

“This paper does not tackle this important question,” author Thomas Holmes wrote. “However, there are results along the way that suggest that right-to-work laws per se are not the whole story.”

What do all of these studies, with their disparate, often contradictory findings have in common? They all find that right-to-work laws reduce union membership.

The disputed WVU study predicts that passing a right-to-work law in West Virginia will reduce private sector union membership by 20 percent.

Indeed, Holmes, whose study was largely favorable to right to work, wrote, “It is clear that the original intent of these laws was to weaken unions.”

Reach David Gutman at, 304-348-5119 or follow @davidlgutman on Twitter.

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