The Corner

Economy & Business

The Slow, Steady March of Right-to-Work Laws

From the midweek edition of the Morning Jolt . . . 

The Slow, Steady March of Right-to-Work Laws

At what point do private-sector unions become too weak for Democrats to fear crossing them anymore?

The union membership rate — the percent of wage and salary workers who were members of unions — was 10.7 percent in 2016, down 0.4 percentage point from 2015, the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics reported today. The number of wage and salary workers belonging to unions, at 14.6 million in 2016, declined by 240,000 from 2015. In 1983, the first year for which comparable union data are available, the union membership rate was 20.1 percent, and there were 17.7 million union workers . . . 

Public-sector workers had a union membership rate (34.4 percent) more than five times higher than that of private-sector workers (6.4 percent).

On paper, Missouri became a right-to-work state last week, meaning you can no longer be forced to join a union and pay its dues as a condition of employment. But unions in the state have a shot at reversing the law:

Monday afternoon, Missouri AFL-CIO President Mike Louis and Missouri NAACP President Rod Chapel filed a petition for referendum with the secretary of state’s office. They have until Aug. 28 — the day the right-to-work measure is scheduled to go into effect — to collect enough signatures to place the law on the ballot. If they succeed, right to work won’t take effect until Missourians get the chance to have their say in 2018.

A “yes” vote would mean right to work becomes law, while a “no” means it doesn’t.

Citizens may call a referendum on a measure approved by the General Assembly and not vetoed by the governor as long as they collect signatures totaling 5 percent of the voters from two-thirds of the state’s congressional districts. That would appear to be roughly 90,000 signatures.

Although the referendum petition was regularly used in Missouri during the early 20th century, the last time it was used was 1982.

Collecting about 90,000 signatures in seven months is not that difficult. Of course, solid majorities in Missouri’s state legislature supported the law, and supporters seem convinced the public is on their side. In 2016, Republican governor Eric Greiten ran on support for the law and unions spent heavily to defeat him. He won, 51 percent to 45 percent. So unions could get that referendum on the ballot in 2018 . . . but would that help Missouri Democrats that year, hurt them, or be a wash?

Meanwhile, up in New Hampshire, the state Senate passed a right-to-work bill and the state House is scheduled to vote on it in the House on February 16.

A lot of the argument about right-to-work laws revolves around whether it helps the state’s economy or not. Advocates and critics should probably keep in mind that being required or being free from joining a union is one of many factors in a state’s economy . . . 

INSKEEP: So again, here’s the phrase. Our story from Kentucky said income and job growth have increased more quickly in right-to-work states since World War II. Is that true?

WESSEL: I did a quick check of the government data for the past 24 months, and it shows that employment grew by 4.6 percent in states with right-to-work laws and only 3.7 percent in states without those laws. Now, your report relied on a tally of government data done by the Mackinac Center for Public Policy — a conservative think tank in Michigan. And it found a 43 percent gain in total employment between 1990 and 2011 in right-to-work states versus 19 percent in other states. And it also found much faster growth in personal income in right-to-work states. But those correlations do not prove that right-to-work laws are the reason or even a reason that some states added more jobs than others. It’s really, really hard — maybe even impossible — to single out the effects of this just one law.

Having said all that, the doomsayers look pretty silly for insisting right-to-work destroys jobs and leads to economic ruin. Michigan passed right-to-work in 2012, and its unemployment rate is at 5 percent. Wisconsin adopted right-to-work in 2015, and its unemployment rate is at 4 percent. Then again, New Hampshire’s not yet a right-to-work state, and it has an astoundingly low unemployment rate of 2.6 percent.