Right to Work, Wrong for Labor: The Decline of Unions in the “United” States

Once upon a time, labor unions were among the most powerful political forces in the United States. Their rise helped usher in an era of social change that dramatically reduced American poverty and injustice between the mid 1930s and the late 1960s, from the New Deal to the Civil Rights Movement to LBJ’s Great Society. But in the last 40 years, unions have come under attack from a multitude of forces, and organized labor in the U.S. is now only a shell of its former self. This precipitous decline has wreaked havoc on the lives of the American working class, causing wage stagnation, worsened employee benefits, and massive growth in income inequality.

Cartoon by Lo Wall

“Right to Work” laws force unions to represent everyone in their workplace for no cost at all. Where enacted, they have created a free-rider problem that has made it nearly impossible for unions to raise the money they need to function. The motivation to pass “Right to Work” laws is not a heartfelt effort to promote worker freedom, but rather another way for Republican legislatures to promote business interests at the expense of the working class. 

At one point, nearly a third of all U.S. workers were union members, but that number had declined consistently since the late 1940s and has steeply decreased from the late 1970s to the present day.  In 1983, 20.1 percent of American workers were members of labor unions—by 2016, only 10.7 percent were. 

External economic factors, such as increased globalization and automation, have played a significant role in the decline of union membership—the most drastic declines have come primarily in the rust belt states of Michigan, Wisconsin, Ohio, Indiana, and Pennsylvania, where deindustrialization has eliminated many unionized manufacturing plants.  But unions are not dying an entirely natural death—far from it, in fact.  Shifting political winds and dishonest policy-making have led to the enactment of “Right to Work” laws in 29 states, which kneecap unions by inhibiting their ability to raise money. 

Unions as we know them today were codified into law in 1935 by the National Labor Relations Act (NLRA). The NLRA created closed-shop unions, meaning when a workplace decided to unionize, every worker had to join the union as a full dues-paying members.  That was amended 12 years later by the Taft-Hartley Act, which freed workers from any obligation to join a union.  It also required that unions represent all workers in disputes with management, even non-members, and it mandated that they could only charge their non-member clients for legal fees.  And, in a provision tucked away within the act, it gave states the power to ban unions from even charging legal fees—a loophole that became “Right to Work”. Proponents of “Right to Work” argue that no one should ever be forced to join a union—I agree, but no one has been forced to join a union legally since 1947. “Right to Work” supporters also like to argue that the laws are economically beneficial to their state; but again, they are being disingenuous. The research on whether or not “Right to Work” creates overall economic growth in a state has been inconclusive so far. What is clear, however, is that workers are worse off in “Right to Work” states—their average wages are 3.2 percent lower, they receive employer sponsored pensions at a 4.8 percent lower rate, and their health insurance is 2.6 percent less likely to be provided through their job, according to the Economic Policy Institute. 

Given these effects, it’s not hard to draw a connection between the growth of “Right to Work”, the death of unions, wage stagnation, and the meteoric increases in income inequality that increasingly plague the U.S. 

The future of the American labor movement is unclear.  In response to challenges to traditional organizing, some have created political arms with legislative goals—most prominently, the Service Employees International Union and their “Fight for $15.” They have won minimum wage increases in dozens of states, including New York and California. But, as they acknowledge, the best way to ensure worker rights and protections is to give workers the power to negotiate directly with their employers. 

Unions are fundamental to the health of a free market democracy.  Their recent decline signals the growing influence of business in government and the rise of a strengthened American aristocracy. 

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