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April 2021

The Case Against Right-to-Work:
Study Backs Michigan, Virginia Repeal Efforts

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Long-shot efforts to roll back right-to-work laws in Michigan and Virginia aren't likely to level the playing field for working people this year, but a new study provides fresh ammunition for pro-union lawmakers in the fight for repeal.

The study, released earlier this year by the Illinois Economic Policy Institute and the Project for Middle Class Renewal at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, lays out how, on a number of metrics, states with right-to-work laws come up short. From lower wages to less community engagement, states with these deceptively-named laws are failing working families.

Researchers looked at data dating back to 2008 to determine the impact of right-to-work laws on state economies and worker well-being. What they found paints a bleak picture. The 27 U.S. states that have enacted right-to-work laws saw slower economic growth, lower wages, higher consumer debt, worse health outcomes and lower levels of civic participation than states that do not have such laws.

"This new study shows what we've known all along, that right-to-work doesn't, in fact, work," said International President Lonnie R. Stephenson. "It doesn't help people and it doesn't help states. Instead, these laws prop up a corporate bottom line — usually at the expense of the workers that make their profits possible."

That's why labor-friendly politicians in Michigan, where Republicans control both chambers of the Legislature, and Virginia, where Democrats are in charge but face opposition from the conservative wing of their caucus, are pushing to repeal the laws and return their states to what the study refers to as "free collective bargaining" status.

Prospects for actual repeal this year are dim in both states, but legislation has been introduced, and supporters of repeal are pointing to many of the statistics cited in the Illinois EPI report.

According to the analysis, right-to-work states have 3% lower hourly wages on average, 5% less health insurance coverage and 8% less retirement security. For construction workers, the pay penalty rises to 11%. On average, union households earn between 10% and 20% more than nonunion households — an income premium that has been consistent since the 1930s.

Free collective-bargaining states also provide more investment in education and worker training, fewer on-the-job fatalities and faster-growing economies. Among the report's findings was that right-to-work states have 31% fewer registered apprentices per 100,000 workers and 50% more on-the-job fatalities. Apprenticeships also grew faster in union-friendly states, providing more avenues to the middle class.

Right-to-work laws may also be hampering efforts to recover from the coronavirus. States with such laws effectively lower the bar in terms of providing livable wages and adequate health coverage, not to mention safe workplaces — all factors in a state's ability to combat the deadly virus that has claimed more than half a million U.S. lives.

"As we seek out ways to value and support the front-line workers who are keeping our communities going during these historically challenging times, there is ample evidence to suggest that right-to-work laws are having the opposite effect," said study co-author, PMCR Director and University of Illinois Professor Dr. Robert Bruno.

For those who claim that limiting collective bargaining is good for business, a state's right-to-work status didn't even crack the top 10 reasons that businesses cited as reasons to relocate. Such factors, the study authors noted, are primarily driven by other considerations like infrastructure accessibility, the availability of skilled labor and quality-of-life factors.

During a February virtual town hall, anti-union Gov. Jim Justice of West Virginia put a finer point on the effectiveness of anti-union laws, admitting that right-to-work and a repeal of the state's prevailing wage have done nothing to boost his state's economy.

"Well, the bottom line to the whole thing is just really simple. We went out and passed a right-to-work law, we got rid of prevailing wage, we built fields all over the place thinking that they will come. They didn't come, did they?" Justice said, referring to the promised employers and jobs that would be lured to the state if lawmakers betrayed its working people.

West Virginia passed right-to-work in 2016. The law was challenged in court, but ultimately upheld by the state's Supreme Court. The state repealed its prevailing wage law the same year.

"When you starve unions, you starve the working class and it hurts us all," Stephenson said. "Whether it's wages that keep you from needing government assistance to make ends meet, or who gets elected — and who gets to vote for them — right-to-work laws have consistently been on the losing side where working families are concerned."


The Flip Side:
New Hampshire, Montana
Are Latest Right-to-Work Battlegrounds

Anti-union lawmakers and their out-of-state corporate backers are working to revive a right-to-work effort in New Hampshire. But the state's working families and union activists hope to deal the effort a similar fate to the recent one in Montana, where right-to-work was beaten back in the Legislature in early March after a wide bipartisan vote.

In New Hampshire, the IBEW and allies worked with Democrats and a handful of Republicans in the state House, many of whom were union members, to defeat a right-to-work law in 2017. But the Republican-controlled Senate passed a new version this year and Republican Gov. Chris Sununu has indicated he will sign it.

In Montana, far-right members of the state's Legislature introduced right-to-work early during the current session, the first in 16 years in which the GOP controlled both the statehouse and the governor's mansion. But the House voted it down 62-38 on March 2, with 29 Republicans joining Democrats to reject the measure.

The vote affirmed the importance of working families in Montana, where unions and labor were integral in building the state's legendary copper-mining industry and have long had greater respect than in most Western states.

IBEW leaders in Montana said it was obvious from the start the proposed law was being pushed by outside groups like the National Right-to-Work Committee.

"I guess I'm not really surprised but just relieved that Montana is the Montana I know and love," said Eight and Ninth District Regional Organizing Coordinator Bob Brock, whose family has lived in the state for five generations. "We don't like out-of-state money flowing in here from big money interests."

In the Northeast, right-to-work advocates long have viewed libertarian-leaning New Hampshire as an attractive target.

IBEW leaders in the state began taking part in weekly calls with other unions in the New Hampshire AFL-CIO after November's election, said Second District International Representative Ed Starr said. They'll need to convince 12-13 House GOP members to vote "no" if the bill comes to a vote.

Starr said IBEW members are engaged and contacting their legislators, regardless of political party affiliation. They understand that right-to-work laws are designed to suppress wages.

"We're just trying to remind people it's a worker issue," Starr said. "A majority of union members in New Hampshire, never mind the IBEW, are registered Republicans or unaffiliated. It's not a political issue."

Peggy McCarthy, Manchester Local 2320 vice president and a former Republican House member, said she has encouraged members to send thank-you notes to GOP House members who have stood against right-to-work laws in the past.

They face considerable pressure to change their minds from outside the state, and with the hyperlocal nature of New Hampshire's 400-seat House, they only have about 3,000 constituents apiece. Getting even a handful of appreciative notes from those voters is powerful, she said.

"Your constituents are your neighbors," McCarthy said. "You don't have that separation or detachment that politicians have in other states."

In Montana, the IBEW and allies also got to work in November organizing against the laws that drain money and power from unions by allowing free-riders to reap the benefits of a collective bargaining agreement without contributing to its success.

Local unions called their members, sent out email blasts and reached out via social media, urging them and friends and loved ones to contact their legislators.

That work was ramped up even more after a house committee voted Feb. 26 to advance the bill to the full House. Members met with legislators on Feb. 27 — a Saturday — and then an estimated 1,000 union members showed up at the Capitol to protest on the day of the vote.

"It was awesome," said Helena Local 233 Business Manager Jackie McBroom. "I'm not going to lie. I was scared to death [the bill would pass]. But everyone just came together."

Earlier in February, Helena Local 206 Business Manager James Holbrook testified against the bill. So did officials from NorthWestern Energy, which employs members from Butte Local 44.

"We oppose this bill because it represents the sort of government overreach into the private sector that thousands of our members voted you into office to oppose," Holbrook told the House committee.

Eighth District Vice President Jerry Bellah thanked all IBEW members for their work in defeating the bill but cautioned a similar effort likely will resurface in the future.

"I am so proud of the work that our Montana locals put in during this campaign to defeat right-to-work," Bellah said. "The leadership and members of Locals 44, 206, 233, 532, 768 and 1638 met the challenge head on. The win would not have happened without their teamwork and coordinated effort against this attack on Montana's working families."


IBEW members and allies in Montana rallied successfully against a right-to-work bill at the state Capitol in Helena on March 2.