Labor unions and their political buddies have sworn that they will roll back the right-to-work law passed by the Michigan Legislature earlier this month. “There will be blood,” warned Douglas Geiss, a Democratic state representative, as it became apparent the law was going to win. Other Democrats — including President Obama’s press secretary — hastily explained that Geiss didn’t actually mean, you know, blood blood, just some kind of wispy, harmless metaphorical substance.
But to win the right to work battle, the union forces really will have to shed blood, or at the very least impersonate the old communist regime in East Germany, building walls around their states and topping them with barbed wire to keep people in. Because Americans have been for a long time now voting with their feet in favor of right-to-work laws.
In 1970, just 28.5 percent of the U.S. population lived in states with right-to-work. Now, even before Michigan’s new measure takes effect, the number is up over 40 percent. “At least half that growth is because of worker migration,” says Richard Vedder, a senior fellow at the Independent Institute think-tank who teaches economics at Ohio University. “Workers are leaving states that don’t have right-to-work laws and moving to states that do.”
According to U.S. Census Bureau statistics, between 2000 and 2009, more than five million people moved into states with right-to-work laws from those that don’t have them. Of the 22 states with right-to-work protection during that period (Indiana and Michigan have since joined them), 73 percent gained population from inter-U.S. migration. The only one to lose significant numbers of people was Louisiana, devastated by Hurricane Katrina.
Right-to-work laws were a reaction to the 1935 Wagner Act, the New Deal law that for the first time allowed organized labor to force employers to create closed shops where all employees had to join unions. Shortly after World War II, Congress amended the law. The new Taft-Hartley Act outlawed closed shops, sort of, but also said employees could be forced to pay union dues even if they didn’t join.
But Taft-Hartley also allowed states the ability to opt out of the system by passing right-to-work laws that would prohibit anybody from being forced to pay dues to a union that they didn’t wish to join. About a third of the states quickly adopted them, and then the situation — legally, at least — settled into a holding pattern. Between 1970 and 2000, only two states (Louisiana and Idaho) passed right-to-work laws.
Yet, quietly, Americans have been turning away from labor unions for a long time. The first sign visible to anybody besides labor economists was a dog that didn’t bark: the public’s indifference when President Reagan fired 11,000 federal air-traffic controllers in response to a strike in 1981. “That would have been unheard of in the 1950s,” Vedder says. “There would have been a giant uproar. But there wasn’t.”
Since then, labor’s losses have been steady. At the time of the Taft-Hartley Act, more than a third of America’s non-agricultural work force belonged to unions. Now, in the private sector, the percentage has shrunk below 10. The evidence suggests that U.S. workers see unions as a useful tool to develop fundamental standards of wages and benefits, but an economic drag once they’re established.
And Vedder’s studies suggest they’re right. Between 1980 and 2010, the economies in right-to-work states grew 3.3 percent annually; in the rest of the states, 2.6 percent. It is certainly no coincidence that between 1984 and 2011, the number of Fortune 500 companies headquartered in right-to-work states more than doubled, from 74 to 157.
Vedder has been studying the economic impact of right-to-work laws for years. In a paper published in 2010, he predicted an upsurge in efforts to pass the laws in rust-belt states where the economy has been lagging the most miserably. Sure enough, first Indiana and then Michigan have adopted them in the past year. Ohio could be next.
But one way or another, American workers will keep voting with their feet.