A report released today by the St. Paul-based think tank Minnesota 2020 backs up what unions have been saying about “right to work” laws like the one Michigan Republicans scurried to pass this week: They are bad for workers’ wages and benefits, as well as the economy as a whole.
Titled “A Losing Bet,” the report debunks the economic benefits touted by RTW proponents in Minnesota, but speakers at today’s Capitol news conference also weighed in on protests raging in Lansing, Mich., where Republicans used a lame-duck session to force two RTW bills – one for public-sector workers, another for private-sector workers – through the Legislature without committee hearings.
Matt Entenza, Minnesota 2020’s senior policy director, called the Michigan bills a “sneak attack” on workers.
University of Minnesota history professor Hy Berman called it a “tragedy that the great state of Michigan, the bedrock of industrial unionization, should join forces with Mississippi, Louisiana and other Confederate states to become a right-to-scab, right-to-keep-wages-down state.”
In an about-face from promises made on the campaign trail two years ago, Republican Gov. Rick Snyder has said he will sign the RTW bills into law, making Michigan the nation’s 24th RTW state. (UPDATE: Snyder has signed the bills, making Michigan a RTW state.)
A question of fairness
Also known as “Freedom of Employment,” RTW would allow workers covered by union contracts to avoid paying their share of the costs of representation, but still enjoy the wages and benefits provided by the union contract.
Current law in Minnesota says a worker whose job is covered by a collective-bargaining agreement is obligated to pay “fair-share” fees to the union – at a lower rate than membership dues – to cover the costs of representation and bargaining. Under federal law, unions are required to represent and bargain for all workers subject to the contract, whether they are full members or not.
RTW would eliminate “fair share” fees. Some workers would pay dues if they chose to, but all workers would receive the benefits of union representation – from negotiated wage and benefit increases to grievance representation and seniority.
Unions argue RTW creates a “free-rider” incentive that undermines their ability to represent workers effectively. By eroding union membership, RTW also erodes wages, benefits and workplace protections for both union and non-union workers.
Those arguments are backed up by “A Losing Bet,” a review of independent academic literature on RTW. Minnesota 2020’s research shows union membership declines by 6.6 percent in states that pass RTW, while the “free-rider effect” in increases anywhere from 6 to 10 percent in bargaining units.
The wrong approach to economic development
But do RTW laws draw large employers? Not so much, according to the report, which finds other factors – like highway accessibility and availability of skilled labor – are more important to large employers looking to develop or relocate their facilities.
In fact, Entenza said, RTW laws “hurt wages and hurt the ability of states to compete for high-wage jobs.”
With DFL majorities in both chambers of the Legislature, Minnesota is unlikely to follow Michigan’s lead during the upcoming legislative session. But if anyone had forgotten Minnesota Republicans’ attempt last spring to push a RTW constitutional amendment, the events in Lansing should serve as a wake-up call, Entenza said.
“We must use this opportunity to move the discussion forward on enhancing policies that ensure dignity, respect and wage protections in the workplace.”
Minnesota 2020 is a progressive, non-partisan think tank that focuses its research on education, health care, transportation and economic development.