Right-to-Work Rights and Wrongs

Teachers union treasurer perpetuates myths about worker freedom.

The term “right-to-work” (RTW) very simply means that workers don’t have to pay dues to a union as a condition of employment. In the U.S., there are 24 such states and 26 where paying dues to a union  is required in many workplaces.

The unions, with all their pro-worker chatter, hate the fact that in some places, employees actually have a choice whether to join or not. As Stan Greer, senior research associate for the National Institute for Labor Relations Research, wrote recently, “Teacher Union Bosses’ Hatred of Right to Work Laws Is Understandable” – the reason being that people are flocking to RTW states in droves, which is costing unions millions in lost dues. The National Education Association has been hit especially hard.

The U.S. Census Bureau data show that, from 2002 to 2012, the number of K-12 school-aged children (that is, 5-17 year-olds) across the U.S. edged up by 0.8%, from 53.28 million to 53.73 million.  However, the 22 states that had Right to Work laws on the books barring forced union dues and fees throughout the period saw their aggregate school-aged population grow by 1.7 million, or 8.3%.  Meanwhile, the number of school-aged children living in the 27 states that lacked Right to Work laws throughout the period fell by nearly 1.3 million, or 4.0%.  (Indiana, whose Right to Work law took effect in early 2012, is excluded.)

But the union crowd never misses an opportunity to let a clever sounding narrative run roughshod over the facts. The latest purveyor of union blather is Arlene Inouye, current treasurer of the United Teachers of Los Angeles and member of the ominous sounding “Union Power Slate,” a group that is trying to unseat current president Warren Fletcher in an election this January. In the latest edition of the union newspaper, she wrote “Unionism 101: The growing right-to-work (for less) movement,” an article riddled with errors, half-truths and good old-fashioned demagoguery. Ms. Inouye made her first blunder when she quoted the president.

President Obama exposed what it is really about when he said right to work “will take your right to bargain for better wages” and give you the “right to work for less money.” So, let’s call it what it really is: a right-to-work (for less) legislative movement.

The statement, which conflates two issues, is erroneous. RTW simply means that workers have a choice. Collective bargaining can exist in a RTW state.

Ms. Inouye relentlessly pounds the cutesy “for less” theme in her piece which is replete with all the usual buzz terms. “The one percenters,” “an attack on the public sector” and “corporate interests in politics” all make an appearance along with several sob stories about abused, impoverished and beleaguered teachers in RTW states.

But the facts are quite different. The National Institute for Labor Relations Research reported that in 2011, when disposable personal income – personal income minus taxes – was adjusted for differences in living costs, the seven states with the lowest incomes per capita (Alaska, California, Hawaii, Maine, Oregon, Vermont, and West Virginia) lack Right to Work laws.

Of the nine states with the highest cost of living-adjusted disposable incomes in 2011, Iowa, Kansas, Nebraska, North Dakota, South Dakota, Texas, Virginia and Wyoming all have Right to Work laws. The sole exception among the nine is forced-unionism Illinois. While the Prairie State’s relatively high spendable average income is a positive, it should be noted the state is at the same time plagued by high out-migration of families with children and extraordinarily poor job creation.

Overall, the cost of living-adjusted disposable income per capita for Right to Work states in 2011 was more than $36,800, or roughly $2200 higher than the average for forced-unionism states.

After Michigan became a RTW state, The Wall Street Journal reported,

According to the West Michigan Policy Forum, of the 10 states with the highest rate of personal income growth, eight have right-to-work laws. Those numbers are driving a net migration from forced union states: Between 2000 and 2010, five million people moved to right-to-work states from compulsory union states.

Other policies (such as no income tax) play a role in such migration, so economist Richard Vedder tried to sort out the variables. In the 2010 Cato Journal, he wrote that “without exception” he found “a statistically significant positive relationship” between right to work and net migration.

Mr. Vedder also found a 23% higher rate of per capita income growth in right-to-work states. An analysis by the Taxpayers Protection Alliance finds that Michigan is now the 35th state in overall prosperity measured by per capita income. Had Michigan adopted a right-to-work law in 1977, the group estimates, per capita income for a family of four would have been $13,556 higher by 2008. (Emphasis added.)

Despite Ms. Inouye’s apocalyptic scenario, many teachers (especially younger ones) actively avoid unionization. Charter schools, only a small percentage of which are unionized, are quickly gaining in popularity with parents and teachers alike. In this brief video put out by the California Charter School Association, we hear teachers explain why they like to teach in a less restrictive setting:

  • I feel like an innovator.
  • We have more freedom and can be more creative.
  • We can be places that empower teachers.
  • Charters are the result of people saying, “This isn’t working; we want to try something different.”

Trying “something different” when you have a phonebook-sized union contract hanging over your head is rather difficult.

Wisconsin, where teachers now have a choice to join a union – thanks to Governor Scott Walker – has seen a precipitous drop in membership.

The Wisconsin Education Association Council, the state’s largest teachers union, lost about half of its 98,000 members since Act 10 became law in 2011, according to the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel. That means WEAC has lost approximately half of its annual income from membership dues, which has impacted its ability to remain a force on the state political scene. (Emphasis added.)

But I did agree with one point that Ms. Inouye made. Quoting Bob Peterson, president of the Milwaukee Teachers Union, she wrote, “Be vigilant, informed, and don’t think that it (becoming RTW) won’t happen to you.”

Whether California will ever become RTW is anyone’s guess, but being vigilant and informed is certainly a worthy pursuit. However, considering the sophistry emanating from Ms. Inouye, she is hardly the one to be offering the “information.”

Larry Sand, a former classroom teacher, is the president of the non-profit California Teachers Empowerment Network – a non-partisan, non-political group dedicated to providing teachers with reliable and balanced information about professional affiliations and positions on educational issues.

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