Missourians rally against right-to-work legislation.
Photo credit: Jobs With Justice via Flickr

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."