December 18, 2014

December 18, 2014 | Commentary on Labor, Jobs, Jobs and Labor Policy

Right-to-work law would protect Wisconsin workers

Michael Romanchock recently got let go. But he was not "downsized." His employer had no issues with his performance. Romanchock got fired for not paying dues to the Teamsters. His experience demonstrates how right-to-work would help Wisconsin's workers and unemployed.

Romanchock started his job in June last year. This March, the Teamsters sent him a letter demanding dues. Romanchock refused. He had worked nine months without realizing the Teamsters represented him. Why pay $600 a year for representation he could not even notice? In May, the union threatened to have him fired if he did not pay. He still refused. So the Teamsters' local made good on its threat. At its behest, Romanchock's employer — a Pepsi bottling plant in Pennsylvania — let him go.

Right-to-work laws protect workers from such coercion by making union dues voluntary. Without them, unions contracts make paying dues a condition of employment.

In right-to-work states, unions must persuade workers to voluntarily purchase their services. That forces them to provide quality representation that improves workers' lives. Unions do not have to work nearly as hard in states such as Pennsylvania and Wisconsin with forced dues. Romanchock saw no visible benefit from his union but it could still demand he pay.

This system hurts workers. As Gary Casteel, the Southern regional director for the United Auto Workers puts it:

"This is something I've never understood, that people think right-to-work hurts unions. To me, it helps them. You don't have to belong if you don't want to. So if I go to an organizing drive, I can tell these workers, 'If you don't like this arrangement, you don't have to belong.' Versus, 'If we get 50% of you, then all of you have to belong, whether you like to or not.' I don't even like the way that sounds, because it's a voluntary system, and if you don't think the system's earning its keep, then you don't have to pay."

Right-to-work also attracts investment and jobs. Since 1990, employment has grown twice as fast in right-to-work states as in non-right-to-work states such as Wisconsin. Not surprisingly, right-to-work states have lower unemployment.

This happens because right-to-work laws make union organizers less aggressive. Mandatory dues put a lot of money on the table for unions. An organizing victory means every worker must pay them hundreds of dollars a year. So they put considerable resources into organizing companies in non-right-to-work states.

Of course, management gets the union it deserves. Businesses that treat their workers poorly will get unionized, with or without right-to-work. But companies want to know they can avoid unionizing drives if they treat their workers well. Voluntary dues make that much more likely. Union organizing drops substantially after states pass right-to-work. Consequently, many businesses prefer right-to-work states.

When foreign automakers came to America, they deliberately located primarily in right-to-work jurisdictions instead of the Midwest. Boeing put its new production line in South Carolina for the same reason. As economic development consultant David Brandon reports, "More than half of our companies either make it (right-to-work) a threshold or a very important factor in making a decision on where to locate a factory and other operations."

Attracting jobs helps unemployed workers — such as Romanchock — who need new jobs. Wisconsin's failure to pass right-to-work drives away businesses at which they could work. No wonder polling finds Americans support right-to-work by a 3-to-1 margin.

Unions prefer to force workers to pay them dues. They justify this by arguing that right-to-work lowers wages and forces them to represent "free riders." Neither claim withstands scrutiny. Right-to-work states have below-average wages, but only because they have lower costs of living. Adjusting for this shows they have just as high — and possibly higher — real wages as the rest of America.

Furthermore, the Supreme Court ruled in Consolidated Edison Co. vs. NLRB that federal law allows unions to negotiate "members' only" contracts. They can bargain on behalf of only dues-paying members if they wish. When unions represent non-members they do so voluntarily — as Romanchock's union did. That hardly justifies compelling him and other workers to pay dues.

Wisconsin should become the next right-to-work state. This would expand economic opportunities and increase personal freedom in Wisconsin. Few other policies could do as much to boost Wisconsin's attractiveness to new businesses.

If the Legislature does not act, cities and villages can. Wisconsin's home rule statute delegates to them the authority to make laws for the "welfare" and "commercial benefit" of their residents, provided they do not conflict with state law. No state law prohibits right-to-work. Consequently, home rule gives Wisconsin's municipalities the authority to pass right-to-work locally. With such ordinances cities and villages could protect the welfare of their workers and unemployed.

Either statewide or locally right-to-work would protect Wisconsinites from becoming the next Michael Romanchock.

 - James Sherk is a senior policy analyst in labor economics at The Heritage Foundation.

About the Author

James Sherk Research Fellow, Labor Economics
Center for Data Analysis

Related Issues: Labor, Jobs, Jobs and Labor Policy

Originally appeared in the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel