Right to Work Is About More Than Politics

by Reihan Salam

Just as a growing number of states embrace right-to-work laws, as John Fund recently observed, Democrats are placing a heavier emphasis on defending the interests of organized labor, according to Lydia DePillis and Jim Tankersley of the Washington Post. Those who follow DePillis and Tankersley closely won’t be surprised to find that the article offers a favorable portrait of organized labor, and that most of the experts they cite are convinced of the virtues of unions. To their credit, they acknowledge that pro-union Democrats are motivated in part by a desire to “preserve a key constituency they’ve long relied on to win elections.” Yet the article mostly focuses on the widespread belief among Democrats that unions can combat wage stagnation and inequality.

But when they reference critics of unions, they suggest that politics trumps substance. Specifically, they quote Grover Norquist to make their case that “[f]or the conservative activists driving anti-union legislation in the states, weakening labor’s power is a way to hurt Democrats in presidential elections,” which of course is a mirror image of the fact that Democrats are seeking to preserve — and ideally to grow — “a key constituency they’ve long relied on to win elections.” How does anti-union legislation hurt Democrats? Many union members, particularly those who lean to the right, object to the fact that their dues are routinely used to elect Democrats, which is one of the motivating factors behind legislation designed to curb union power. Conservative critics argue, not unreasonably, that it’s unfair to ask conservative union members, and non-members who are nevertheless obligated to contribute to unions, to fund political causes they oppose. By changing the default, by insisting that workers must opt-in to unions and to funding their political activities, you only hurt the political causes union leaders are inclined to support if rank-and-file members don’t share their convictions or if they’re less willing to devote their own money to the cause.

And to state the obvious, the alliance between organized labor and the Democratic Party isn’t the only objection conservatives have to organized labor, nor is it the most important one. Recently, Adam Ozimek discussed the fact that employment growth tends to be lower in unionized firms and industries than in their non-union counterparts. To illustrate this phenomenon, Ozimek observes that “nonunionized manufacturing employment is basically at the same level as it was in the early 1970s, while unionized employment has cratered.” Suffice it to say, many Americans, including many conservatives, believe that low levels of employment growth are a problem, and that the supposed benefits of unionization (lower wage inequality) aren’t worth the apparent cost (fewer jobs). Granted, the government could seek to restrict the growth of non-union firms — but according Ozimek, this would likely lead to more offshoring. One might object to Ozimek’s analysis. Perhaps it is purely a coincidence that employment growth in the unionized sector has grown more slowly than the nonunion sector. But I think it’s fair to say that concerns about the downsides of organized labor are about more than the outcome of presidential elections. This is why voters in the industrial Midwest, the heartland of organized labor, have embraced right-to-work laws, and it’s why we can expect more states to do the same in the years to come. 

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