Does “Right to Work” Work?

Recently, the Washington Examiner interviewed Indiana Governor Mike Pence. It ran the subsequent story under a banner headline:  “Indiana’s Right to Work law has sparked economic rebirth for the Midwest.”

I’d never heard of the newspaper, so I consulted Dr. Google, and discovered (surprise!) that it is owned by Denver billionaire Philip Anschutz[4] who also owns the influential conservative opinion magazine The Weekly StandardIn other words, the paper has a very definite point of view.

But…”economic rebirth”? Sparked by Right to Work?

It is almost impossible to find credible research on the effect of Right to Work laws. Most researchers–even those who are not ideological–have difficulty controlling for the multiple factors that affect a state’s economy. The little sound academic research that does exist suggests the real impact of the laws–for good or ill– is not nearly as dramatic as the heated debate might suggest.

For example, Michigan State University researchers Dale Belman, Richard Block and Karen Roberts examined state economies from 1998 through 2000 and concluded in 2009 that right-to-work laws “seem to have no effect on economic activity.”

In fact, they found that unions in general “have little impact, despite conventional wisdom.”

The Economic Policy Institute is a left-leaning, but generally credible and unbiased research resource. In a 2011 study, the Institute compared Right to Work states to those without that law.

  • In 2009, the unemployment rate was 1.0 percentage points lower in RTW states than states without the legislation. In RTW states, it was 8.6%, In other states it was 9.6%.[16]
  • Wages in right-to-work states are 3.2% lower than those in non-RTW states, after controlling for a full complement of individual demographic and socioeconomic variables as well as state macroeconomic indicators. Using the average wage in non-RTW states as the base ($22.11), the average full-time, full-year worker in an RTW state makes about $1,500 less annually than a similar worker in a non-RTW state. The study goes on to say “How much of this difference can be attributed to RTW status itself? There is an inherent “endogeneity” problem in any attempt to answer that question, namely that RTW and non-RTW states differ on a wide variety of measures that are also related to compensation, making it difficult to isolate the impact of RTW status.”[16]
  • The rate of employer-sponsored health insurance (ESI) is 2.6 percentage points lower in RTW states compared with non-RTW states, after controlling for individual, job, and state-level characteristics. If workers in non-RTW states were to receive ESI at this lower rate, 2 million fewer workers nationally would be covered.
  • The rate of employer-sponsored pensions is 4.8 percentage points lower in RTW states, using the full complement of control variables in [the study’s] regression model. If workers in non-RTW states were to receive pensions at this lower rate, 3.8 million fewer workers nationally would have pensions.

You’d never guess any of that from the glowing report in the Washington Examiner.

In our current media environment, however, data and verification–let alone nuance and complexity–are less important than creating a reality that will appeal to the audience being targeted.

Remember the old song lyric, “a good man is hard to find”? Try looking for a good newspaper these days.


  1. I think the problem is somewhat worse than you suggest. It’s not just data and complexity that are less important; rather on one side if the political spectrum there is now a virtually complete distrust of empirical evidence and the social & physical sciences that analyze that evidence. Just look at the hyperbole surrounding an increase in the minimum wage. Or climate change. Evolution. Benghazi!

  2. We are an argumentative state – and country – in that every issue mentioned results in a debate on some level. An old friend told me long ago that we can find statistics to prove any point if we only know where to look. Some issues are staring us in the face these days but current conditions are ignored as not being relevant to the statistics. Unions, while not being perfect with some not totally honest, brought change for workers and consumers alike by improving working conditions and requirements for manufctured products sold to the public. My father was a member of UAW, Local 23, for decades; he would be angry and heartbroken at situations today. In my simple thinking process I have always wondered why those who are against unions and do not want to be forced to pay union dues (and should not be forced) cannot just be excluded from the benefits fought for and won by unions. They want the benefits but don’t want to put out the extra time as well as money to earn them. Union benefits should be merit benefits; rewards to those who support the issues and are willing to fight for them. I’m sure these comments will result in many opposing comments on this blog; that is what the comment section is for and these are MY views.

  3. Michael, I guess people distrust the data that they disagree with. That puts one in a bad spot when they can’t find any data that supports them. They are left with “It is a conspiracy!”

  4. If there aren’t any statistics about RTW states and how it affects employment, we’ll never know the effects that it has on the worker’s sense of dignity and work ethic. The workers in these states are under constant stress that they can and will be terminated for no reason whatsoever. It’s THAT right to work for as long as your boss or employer sees fit, not whether or not the worker is doing his or her job effectively or efficiently.

    And if the studies can’t prove that it is an improvement to the states that have these laws, how much longer will that stress on the worker continue until they quit, leave and or take the company down with them? Seriously, I ask this question.

    If the job is insecure, the workers will not last and the productivity in the company’s bottom line will be affected.

  5. I was in my younger days a member in three different Unions. Like any Institution they had the gamut of human behavior.

    You can learn something new almost everyday, if you want to. I recently came across the word “advertorial.” According to WIKI –

    An advertorial is an advertisement in the form of editorial content. The term “advertorial” is a blend of the words “advertisement” and “editorial.” Merriam-Webster dates the origin of the word to 1946. In printed publications, the advertisement is usually written in the form of an objective article and designed to look like a legitimate and independent news story. In television, the advertisement is similar to a short infomercial presentation of products or services.

    Some Advertorials and Infomercials are pretty obvious. We have other publications that have a specific political point of view. Our Mega-Media has “Cut and Paste” and Press Release Journalism. I prefer Counterpunch as source, although you miss Local Content. NUVO in the days of Harrison Ullman was an excellent counter to the Corporate Star.

  6. AgingLittleGirl, you bring up some interesting issues, and open up the problem. Aside from just plain bottom lines, how do these situations affect the attitudes of people toward their work? For example, the question, “If you won the lottery, would you continue to work?” has been used to measure work ethic of Americans for the last 50 years, but there are a number of other measures and areas that measure work attitudes. We know that people who feel valued by their employer and colleagues tend not to claim disability over people who don’t feel that way, given the same level of injury. I suspect that it’s much more complicated than Right to Work. People in the professions, for example, don’t have unions but there are other factors at work. Turnover, missed work days and other issues are areas to examine. Whatever contributes to a sense of pride and well-being is probably big. I suspect if one has little input into how the organization is conducted, and if non-union status contributes to that problem, that is a big problem. From what I hear, Toyota doesn’t have a union, but the employees will go to the stake for them.

  7. JoAnn Green, you get no argument from me. I agree completely. I too think a worker shouldn’t be forced to join a union, as long as they agree not to demand any of the benefits the unions are able to secure for their members.

  8. I don’t think that would be legal, but there are readers who are better prepared than I to address that question.

  9. Foregoing negotiated benefits to avoid union dues and fees associated with winning and maintaining those contractual benefits is not legal according to the U.S Supreme Court.

    Union governance is similar to U.S. government. One doesn’t get to forego payment of taxes for the government rules and/or benefits the taxpayer doesn’t support or want. Government would be impossibly fractured otherwise.

    Instead, representative USA governments and union governance must protect their voters’ rights to select different people to govern them in the next election, to run for office themselves, to petition government for changes, to express objections, and to sue for misapplication or unequal application of laws and rules. Unions also give their fee-payers the right to vote yes or no on ratification of contracts providing payment of fees in ‘agency shop’ contracts or as a condition of employment. Unions also permit fee-payers to vote on the amount of dues and dues structure (a point the right-to-work folks never note.) The majority rules. Whatever election, government, and union decisions result, everyone must abide by them until new people, rules or contracts replace and change former ones.

    Aside from the legal decisions, I’ve yet to hear of a single objector to union dues or fees who was willing to surrender their pay raises, negotiated health and disability insurance, contractual pension benefits, workplace safety protections, fair personnel policies, vacations, sick leave, week-ends, overtime pay, and any number of other benefits in their union contracts. They want the benefits without sharing in the cost of winning and retaining them.

    As Andy Jacobs used to note, it’s difficult for 6 people to carry a piano. It’s particularly difficult when 3 of them are sitting on it.

  10. Another statistic that seems to be missing is the success rate for the new jobs that are usually announced with a ribbon cutting or a press conference, with the governor and local officials in attendance. Without statistics to support it, my conclusion is that many of the promised jobs never materialize and many of them are low paying jobs with minimal benefits. The politicians just keep smiling.

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