The history of organized labor is bloody. When workers seek to wrest control of their lives out of the hands of the wealthy, they face intense resistance. In the Ludlow Massacre of 1913, American soldiers set fire to an encampment of striking mine workers and gunned down at least twenty-one men, women, and children. They were egged on by John D. Rockefeller, the University of Chicago’s founder and the mine workers’ employer. The mine workers retaliated and ambushed the soldiers. They would go on to found the United Mine Workers of America. During the Homestead strike of 1892, a private army of union-busters invaded a camp of striking factory workers in Pennsylvania and forcibly ejected them from the factory grounds. These workers formed a union that was the precursor to the United Steelworkers. Ordinary, working Americans have long fought tooth and nail for the basic rights of striking and organizing, and the dignity of better wages, safer working conditions, and workplace democracy. But the American tradition of vicious anti-union, anti-worker pressure has not ended. Organized labor is still vulnerable to the coalition of wealthy conservatives determined to keep workers oppressed.
Today, one of the Republican Party’s top priorities at the state level is “right-to-work” laws. Whenever Republicans gain control of the legislative and executive branches of a state government, they rapidly institute these laws. Republicans seeking to institute right-to-work laws have received broad support from business interests and wealthy individuals who want to reduce the power of labor unions. Right-to-work laws prohibit contractual agreements between unions and employers which require that all workers in an organized workplace pay for union representation. This encourages freeriding, in which workers can reap the benefits of union representation without paying dues that contribute to the maintenance of the union’s operations. By reducing funding to unions, Republicans effectively weaken unions’ efforts at continued organizing, both in the workplace and in politics.
Proponents of right-to-work laws argue that no worker should be forced to contribute dues to an organization engaged in political activities. But when a majority of workers decide that they want the benefits of union representation, the minority cannot refuse to support the union but still gain higher wages and quality legal representation. When a Republican is elected president, Democrats are not freed from their obligation to pay taxes. Furthermore, workers are not restricted in choosing the union to represent them. If a majority of workers agree that the political activities of their union are not aligned with the workers’ values, they are free to disaffiliate and organize under another union. And if the minority of workers are so deeply offended by a union’s values that they cannot contribute their dues in good faith, they are free to give up higher wages and better benefits to go and work for a non-unionized workplace.
The benefits of organizing under a union far outweigh the inconveniences. Labor unions uplift workers in numerous ways. The average wage of a worker under a union contract is 13.2 percent higher than that of a nonunion worker, and unionized workplaces are far less likely to see racial pay gaps or gender pay gaps. Union workers have better benefits, such as pensions, healthcare, and paid sick leave. States with higher union density—the percentage of workers out of an industry who are unionized—are the safest for workers. Unions fought for the Occupational Safety and Health Act which mandated the creation of the Occupational Safety and Health Administration and keeps millions of workers safe by enforcing safety regulations. We should be deeply concerned about the negative effect right-to-work laws have on labor unions.
A collection of union density reports from all twenty-six states in the United States with right-to-work legislation found that in twenty of twenty-six states (77 percent of states), there was a decline in union density in 2015. This contrasts with non right-to-work states, or “collective bargaining” states, in which workers have far more protections when they organize. In collective bargaining states, there was an increase in union density. Another analysis which controls for employer opposition to unions, political affiliation, and social capital finds an even stronger independent effect.
Right-to-work laws, because of their anti-union nature, are instituted primarily in conservative states. These are states that have already had a variety of anti-union laws in the past or administrations that are unwilling to vigorously enforce pro-union legislation. While union density is already low in some states that pass right-to-work laws, these laws still safeguard against future organizing.
Additionally, many right-to-work states instituted the laws quite recently. The effects will not be seen for over a decade because right-to-work has a circuitous effect on a union’s organizing capacity. The quickest effect of right-to-work laws is to reduce union revenue. This weakens a union’s ability to exert political influence. Unions’ political influence helps them push pro-union and pro-worker policy and elect working-class politicians. Research about the political implications of right-to-work laws indicates that these concrete impacts of right-to-work happen well after the law is actually passed.
Republicans consistently paint organized labor as an evil special interest (more powerful and nefarious, somehow, than the health insurance, fossil fuel, pharmaceutical, defense manufacturing, and Christian evangelical lobbies). They claim that “Big Labor” is only interested in acquiring political power. The research does not support this claim. Unions benefit all workers, including those who are not themselves in a union. An industry with more unions raises everybody’s wages, not just those of unionized workplaces. It should not be surprising, then, that right-to-work states harm workers across the board. Right-to-work states have lower wages than states without right-to-work laws. Workers in right-to-work states are also less likely to have employer-based health insurance or a pension.
To put it simply, American workers weren’t born yesterday. They know the benefits of workplace democracy, and they want in. Despite the best efforts of employers, nearly half of non-unionized workers want to be a part of a union. Fifty-eight million non-unionized Americans want to join a union. If every American who wanted to be in a union had their wish granted, the United States would look radically different, for the better.
American workers want the chance to organize for better wages, benefits, and workplace safety. But because of twisted political incentives, conservatives have done their best to beat down organized labor. Union density is not nearly as high as it should be. To make our country better for working Americans, and to build worker power, we need to aggressively crack down on those getting in the way.
The image featured in this article is licensed for reuse under the Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 2.0 Generic License. No changes were made to the original image, which was taken by Charles Edward Miller and can be found here.