Jake Rosenfeld, associate professor of sociology in Arts & Sciences
This week Missouri voters will have a chance to weigh in on an issue that has generated overheated rhetoric – and bundles of dollars – from both sides. Proposition A, the state’s “right to work” bill, is on the August ballot.
Proponents argue that companies are reluctant to invest in the state absent Proposition A’s enactment. They have provided no evidence for the claim, because none exists. After all, Mississippi, Alabama, and neighboring Arkansas are all “right to work” states, but none are the engines of economic prosperity “right to work” supporters promise us. All three rank high in poverty and low in household income, not a combination most Missouri voters would desire. Further north, workers in “right to work” Wisconsin earn $2 less per hour than workers in non-“right to work” Minnesota. Unemployment rates in both states basically the same.
Does “right to work” cause higher poverty and low wage growth?
Not directly. What these laws do is hurt labor unions by allowing workers in unionized workplaces to enjoy all the benefits of union membership without having to incur any of the cost. Unions lose members, and, with them, revenue, reducing the power of organized labor to combat corporate interests in our economy and politics.
A large and growing body of research finds that a weakened labor movement does directly lead to lower wage growth, higher poverty, and, in general, a two-tiered economy decisively tilted toward the interests of the richest among us.
And the disappearance of unions from so many sectors hasn’t just hurt the wages and working conditions of formerly unionized workers. It has also lowered the wages of workers who didn’t belong to a union in the first place. That’s important, because even at the labor movement’s peak in the U.S. and here in Missouri, the majority of workers weren’t unionized.
Forthcoming research by Patrick Denice and myself finds that non-union, private sector workers – that is, most of us – would earn substantially more if unions were as strong today as they were in the late-1970s. Among non-union men working fulltime in the private sector, our calculations suggest annual pay would be approximately $3,170 higher had unionization rates not tumbled from the 1970s on. Among non-union, fulltime women workers in the private sector, annual wages would be $935 higher absent union decline.
These positive “spillover” effects are especially large in occupations where organized labor still retains a sizable presence in Missouri, like construction. A typical construction worker in Missouri earns $24/hour, $7 more than the state’s median hourly wage.
Construction is increasingly the exception to the nonunion norm. Currently, fewer than 1 in 10 Missourians in the private sector belong to a labor union. That’s down from about 1 in 4 back in the early 1980s. If there is one thing we do know from other states’ history, passage of Proposition A will reduce union memberships even further. And research shows what to expect when that happens: stagnant wages for average workers, greater riches for corporate owners.
And that’s exactly the point. If the proponents of Proposition A practiced truth in advertising, they would tell you the aim of their measure is to further weaken an already beleaguered labor movement. Why don’t they? Because, contrary to conventional wisdom, unions remain popular, surprisingly so given all the negative press and political hits they have taken over the recent past. According to a 2017 Gallup poll, over 60% of U.S. adults approve of labor unions. Far more Americans say unions should have more influence in this country rather than less. Younger Americans, in particular, approve of what unions do: two-thirds of those aged 18 to 34 support them.
A recent survey by a team of researchers at MIT provides union leaders and union supporters even more grounds for optimism. The researchers asked non-union, non-managerial workers whether they would support a unionization drive at their workplace. Half of the respondents replied yes, revealing a huge pent up demand for workplace representation.
Union opponents stymie that demand through a range of tactics. “Right to work” is a tried-and-true one, despite claims that Proposition A is really about economic competitiveness. Proposition A is really about union busting and politics. When Missourians head to the polls on August 7, they should know what they are voting on. This is not a bill aimed to unleash economic dynamism throughout the state. To the extent supporters believe it is, they are misguided. At heart, it’s a bill aimed squarely at those few labor unions that still remain, and it aims to defang a core set of organizations advocating on behalf of average workers, union and non-union alike.