MPR News Primer: The 'right-to-work' debate

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Last updated March 13, 2012

Republicans call it "right-to-work." Democrats say it has nothing to do with anyone's rights and everything to do with squeezing worker pay and weakening unions.

It's become a hot legislative issue this year in Minnesota, where some Republicans say a a report from the Center of the American Experiment shows how Minnesota incomes and living standards would be higher if the state passed "right-to-work" legislation. Union officials here argue the opposite is true.

The public seems divided. An unscientific poll of Minnesotans at the State Fair last August found 54 percent saying yes when asked: "Would you support a right-to-work law, meaning workers are not required to join a union or pay union dues as a condition of employment?"

Lawmakers appear equally divided. A Senate panel in mid-March passed the constitutional amendment bill in a 7-6 vote as union supporters packed the room chanting for its defeat.

"The vote means the bill is still alive," the Star Tribune noted. "But no action has yet been taken in the House, and sponsors are not sure it has enough support to pass both floors."

What is the "right-to-work" debate about?

No one can be forced to join a union. The AFL-CIO and National Right to Work Legal Foundation both agree on that point.

But can non-union workers be compelled to pay dues to a union? That's the crux of the debate. In 23 right-to-work states, the answer is no. That includes Indiana, where the governor in February signed right-to-work legislation into law.

MPR News reporter Tim Pugmire notes that in Minnesota, "Workers can already opt out of union membership, but they're required to pay what's known as 'fair share' dues to cover the cost of collective bargaining."

Backers of right-to-work laws say they aren't bashing unions but that people deserve to land a job without being forced to pay union dues. Detractors say those laws are designed to drive down wages, weaken union membership and kill job security. They also argue it's unfair to let a worker enjoy "free ride" benefits of being in a union without having to join it or pay dues.

Republicans in Minnesota are pressing for a constitutional amendment that would bar union membership or union dues as a condition of employment and let current workers keep their jobs if they quit their union. It takes only majority votes in the Minnesota House and Senate to put a constitutional question to voters.

What does the American Experiment report say about Minnesota?

The report clearly backs right-to-work, declaring, "A typical Minnesota resident would have a higher income and standard of living if the state had a right-to-work provision that allowed workers the freedom to join, or not to join, a labor union."

Inside the report, though, the language is much less definitive: "... the state may well benefit from the passage of a RTW law. Our research suggests that adopting RTW provisions can have strong economic benefits for a state..."

At another point, it notes the population jump in Southern, right-to-work states and concludes:

"...the massive migration towards RTW states suggests that people value the increased freedom for workers and employers where governmental constraints on individual employment bargaining are removed, or at least that the economic vitality associated to RTW states appeals to many."

But there's an important footnote: "Unfortunately, we were not able to obtain migration data on just working persons, which would arguably be a more relevant statistic."

How does Minnesota compare to states with low union membership?

The report argues personal income would have jumped if such a right-to-work law had been in place the past few decades, and Minnesota would "almost certainly" be among the top 10 in the nation in per capita income and led the Midwest in economic growth.

But Minnesota's per capita income since has risen faster than the lowest union states the past 40 years. The most recent Census data show Minnesota per capita income is 11th in the nation, far higher than North and South Dakota and Iowa, Minnesota's right-to-work neighbors.

Among states with the lowest percentage of union representation, only Virginia beats out Minnesota in per capita income growth over the past 40 years, and not by much.

Despite the economic turmoil caused by the Great Recession, nearly all the states with low union membership have unemployment rates higher than Minnesota.

Minnesota is one of the nation's higher union membership states, but only about 16 percent of workers here belong to a union. Most are public employees and their numbers have been in decline.

In a December essay, a Department of Employment and Economic Development analyst looked at decades of state and local government employment and concluded state and local government employment as a percentage of all jobs here has been shrinking since 1976.

How important is right-to-work to business?

There's a lot of research but nothing absolute on how much right-to-work helps or hurts a state's business climate.

When a researcher for the Cato Institute, a libertarian think tank, examined state policies in 2000, he concluded:

"Right-to-work states historically have pursued a number of other smokestack-chasing policies, such as low taxes, aggressive subsidies, and even, in some cases, lax environmental regulations. Thus, my results do not say that it is right-to-work laws that matter, but rather that the 'pro-business package' offered by right-to-work states seems to matter."

Other studies show that a quality workforce, good education system and public amenities are the main factors businesses examine when deciding where to build plants and add jobs.

It's also worth noting that the Minnesota Chamber of Commerce, the state's premier business advocacy group at the Capitol, has not taken a position on the right-to-work constitutional amendment.

"We continue to take the pulse of our membership," chamber president David Olson said in a prepared statement. "Our members believe workers should have the right to choose whether they belong to a union and/or pay union dues. We have not determined whether or not this rises to the level of a constitutional amendment."

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