Right-to-work [for less] could mean fewer rights

Right-to-work legislation may be making another appearance in Missouri. But with a unionized workforce of less than 11% of all Missouri workers, it’s being called  “a completely irrelevant factor” in job growth . That view may not stop a Republican majority in Missouri from presenting the issue once again, with claims of job growth and more choice for workers.

If you have ever been a part of a union, you’re no stranger to union dues. That is the crux of right-to-work laws: allowing employees to work for union-only employers without paying union dues. All of the benefits of a unionized work place and no dues?  Who wouldn’t like that? Dues-paying union members and union organizers don’t like it. They say that non-union employees undermine the power that a unified workforce has.

How right-to-work states measure up to the rest of the country

Of the 22 states with right-to-work laws, five of them [Alabama, Louisiana, Mississippi, South Carolina, and Tennessee] have no minimum wage requirement. Those states also have some of the highest poverty rates and lowest median incomes in the country.

Three right-to-work states [Georgia, Arkansas, and Wyoming] have a minimum wage that is less than the federal minimum [$7.25 per hour]. Georgia currently ranks 2nd in highest poverty rates and Arkansans have the 2nd lowest median income in the country.

Of the remaining 14 right-to-work states the low-wage, high poverty rate trend continues with few exceptions. Are there other factors? Yes. Population, household size, labor laws, cost of living, industry and the economy all play roles. Politics may also play a role: most of the right-to-work states are predominantly red states.

Missouri unions and labor laws

Union membership in America has seen a steady decline over the past few decades. Missouri is not immune. While more than a third of American workers were once represented by unions, the national average is now only about 12.3%. At 10.6%, Missouri falls short of that number. Labor laws that target unions harm unions; right-to-work states have some of the lowest numbers of unionized employees to date.

Compared to right-to-work states, Missourians fare slightly better. Arkansas, Georgia, Florida, Louisiana, Mississippi, North Carolina, Oklahoma, South Carolina, South Dakota, Tennessee, Texas, and Virginia all have percentages [of unionized workers] under 7%.

All but two right-to-work states [Nevada, Iowa] fall short of the national average. In Nevada and Iowa, the high numbers can be attributed in part to a concentration of public sector unions. Nationally, public sector unions make up half of the entire unionized workforce.

As an “employment at will” state, Missouri employers can change the status of your employment for any or no reason—including termination, work hours, and wages–so long as changes cannot be classified as discrimination. Missouri employers are not required by state law to offer benefits such as health insurance and paid vacation/medical leave. They are also not required by Missouri law to give employees periods of rest [breaks], including lunch breaks. Employers in Missouri can require employees to work any number of hours but must pay time and a half for more than 40 hours in a work week.

Along with the drop in union membership, American workers have seen wages stagnate, loss of benefits such as employer-provided health care, and the offshoring of jobs. A strong and empowered workforce seems especially important. Among other things, unions negotiate on behalf of members for higher wages, health and medical benefits, and paid leave. The collection bargaining power of union members typically results in higher wages and retirement security.

Language and framing

These and other statistics may be why some opponents of so-called “Right-to-Work” laws consider “Right-to-Exploit” a more apt description. Proponents of “right to work” call non-Right-to-Work states “forced unionism” states. On one side ,there is a group of unified workers and union leaders against the exploitation of their peers. On the other, a polished legal defense group who lobbies on behalf of employers under the guise of more rights for you, the laborer.

It goes without saying that “forced unionism” is misleading. It certainly implies there are enough people living under the heavy-handed tyranny of unions that new legislation is required to protect these oppressed workers. Given the relatively fractional number of unions today, it is unlikely that a person in a given trade can’t find employment outside of a union. In fact, there are laws against forced unionism [read Taft-Hartley Act of 1947] and federal laws disabusing federal courts and/or legislatures of the notion to limit the right of workers to form or join unions.

The last time we faced a right-to-work law in Missouri, the year was 1978. It was soundly defeated. As we take another look at this law more than 30 years later, we should consider how weak our current labor laws are and whether further degrading the union workforce is wise. Do we choose quantity over quality, as we have in decades past? Will the passage of right-to-work legislation even result in said quantity? It may be called Right-to-Work, but this so-called right could come at a steep price.