Unions That Serve Their Members Well Have No Sound Reason to Fear Right to Work

On Friday, nine days after an identical bill prohibiting forced union dues and fees was adopted by the Wisconsin state Senate, the state Assembly in Madison overwhelmingly approved a Right to Work measure on Friday. Yesterday, GOP Gov. Scott Walker signed the legislation, declaring that it would give “workers the freedom to choose whether or not they want to join a union, and employers another compelling reason to consider expanding or moving their business to Wisconsin.”

Union-label legislators weren’t able to stop Wisconsin from becoming America’s 25th Right to Work state, but they certainly did bitterly denounce voluntary-unionism proponents and predict that the sky would fall after they had succeeded.

A key, but completely unsubstantiated, complaint by Big Labor politicians against S.B. 44 and A.B. 61, the Right to Work Bills retrospectively passed by the Senate and Assembly, is that this legislation will “destroy” unions.

Since the sole direct effect of S.B. 44/A.B. 61 is to protect private-sector employees from being fired or denied a job or otherwise discriminated against for refusal to pay fees to a union they would never voluntarily join, there are only two ways this charge could turn out to be true.  

The first possibility is that private-sector unions in Wisconsin are doing such a terrible job of representing the interests of their members that most unionized workers will quit and cut off their financial support as soon as they can.  Presumably, this is not the scenario Big Labor-“friendly” politicians have in mind.

The second possibility is that, even though unions in Wisconsin are, on the whole, performing well as advocates for their members, once workers are allowed to choose as individuals whether or not to bankroll a union, large numbers of them will opt to “freeload” rather than support a union that, from their own perspective, is doing a good job.

Big Labor Assembly Minority Leader Peter Barca (D-Kenosha) apparently holds this jaundiced view regarding the personal integrity of the rank-and-file employees in his state.  On March 3, WITI-TV, a Fox affiliate based in Milwaukee, reported Barca’s accusation that a Right to Work measure would “legislate freeloading.”    (See the first link below for more information.) Given that Americans donate roughly $250 billion to charitable organizations every year of their own free will, it’s hard to fathom why Barca thinks employees in his state are so shortsighted and stingy that they won’t allow good unions to survive unless they are forced to contribute money to them.

At any rate, evidence from the nonpartisan Union Membership and Coverage Database (see the second link below), maintained by labor economists Barry Hirsch and David Macpherson, indicates that Barca is dead wrong.

Hirsch and Macpherson’s data show that, from 2004 to 2014, private-sector union membership (the only kind that will be affected by the just-enacted Wisconsin legislation) plummeted by 585,000, or 9.9%, in the 26 states that lacked Right to Work laws for the entire period.  Meanwhile, private-sector union membership in the 22 states that had Right to Work laws for the entire decade declined by only about a quarter as much.

(Since they adopted their Right to Work laws only recently, Indiana and Michigan are excluded from this analysis of the Hirsch-Macpherson data.)

Based on this record, it is likely that private-sector unions that are serving their members at least reasonably well will have less difficulty preserving their membership base in Wisconsin now that a state Right to Work law has been adopted and is in effect.  Unions that are doing a dismal job will probably see accelerated membership losses.  But do Barca and his fellow anti-Right to Work legislators really want to protect the officers of such unions?

Along with many politicians of his ilk, Big Labor state Rep. Peter Barca (D-Kenosha), the minority leader of the Wisconsin Assembly, claims that, once workers are allowed to choose as individuals whether or not to pay union dues or fees, many will “freeload” rather than support a union they actually believe is doing a good job. Fortunately, the data on union membership trends in Right to Work states show Barca’s jaundiced take on employees’ integrity is unwarranted. Photo: Justin Sullivan/Getty Images NA

Right-to-Work: Supporters say it’ll increase worker freedom

Union Membership and Coverage Database