Right to Work and Unions, Explained

     Since shortly after World War II, American workers that belong to unions has been rapidly declining.


     The latest Republican idea to weaken unions has had some populist appeal: Right to Work. Right to Work laws basically make union membership voluntary. If you get hired at a company that’s unionized, you do not have to join that union or pay its dues in a right to work state.

     While some states have had right to work laws on the books for awhile, the idea has picked up steam lately. Four states have added right to work laws in the past 3 years, while only one state added right to work laws between 1986 and 2011.  

     The idea of right to work has intrinsic appeal. It doesn’t ban unions, it just gives people the option of joining or not. In fact, The National Right to Work Foundation, which lobbies states for right to work laws frames the idea as nither pro or anti union, but simply as a matter of personal freedom. It’s easy to understand why 3 in 4 Americans support it, while 3 in 5 Americans support labor unions. The problem is that right to work is a backdoor way of crippling unions.

     Collective action is a difficult enterprise. While it’s true that unions advocate on behalf of workers to make them better off, almost all unions require a small portion of member’s salary go to the union. So while unions may be ultimately beneficial, they come with both costs and benefits. And as long as costs are imposed, some workers may try to avoid those costs and free ride off the effort of others.

     In The Logic of Collective Action Mancur Olson compares union membership to a competitive market with many firms. In a competitive market, business compete to offer the lowest prices and best service they can. However, if all the firms in the industry cooperated to raise their prices, all the firms would benefit. In the real world, this kind of cooperation fails because whoever breaks the agreement and lowers prices will make a tremendous profit at the others expense. In other words, since there is an opportunity to free ride, firms fail to collude.

     The same logic applies to unions. As long as there is an opportunity to free ride, cooperation will fail. In the case of right to work, workers get an opportunity to work at a firm with all the benefits that come from unionization without the cost of actually being a member. Thus, unions are inevitably weakened in states with right to work laws as workers try to free ride off the benefits of unionization without paying the costs of being a member. When Michigan signed right to work into law, unionization fell 12%.  

     Republican framing of right to work is duplicitous. Right to work inevitably weakens unions. But by framing Right to Work as purely a matter of personal freedom with no effect on unions, Republicans have found a way to trick the American people into hurting unions. Logic tells us support both right to work laws and unions, you must pick one or the other. But Republicans have managed to get 3 in 4 Americans to support right to work while 3 in 5 support unions. A quick bit of arithmetic tells us that over a third of Americans are being duped.


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