Over at Michigan Radio, Rick Pluta makes an interesting observation: “The fact is union membership has typically dropped off in the other 23 states that have adopted ‘right-to-work’ laws.”
The fact that unionization is down is true. But adopting a RTW law, counterintuitively, does not seem to impact the rates of unionization. Unionization across the country is down, and there seem to be no difference in these trends between right-to-work and non-right-to-work states.
It makes intuitive sense that allowing a worker the option of whether or not to be in the union would result in more people choosing not to be union members. But the data does not indicate much of a difference. Unionization rates in right-to-work states are not decreasing at a greater rate than in non-right-to-work states.
There are only three states that have adopted a right-to-work law in the past 30 years: Idaho, which passed right-to-work legislation in 1985 and Oklahoma, which did so in 2001, and Indiana, which passed it earlier this year. There’s no data available yet on how Hoosier union members have responded.
Both Idaho and Oklahoma, like the U.S. as a whole, have had falling unionization rates over the entire data period, which begins in 1983. The chart below shows that the rates of the decrease have been similar in both states to the U.S. average. You would expect that the fall would be noticeably different in Oklahoma after 2001, but there does not appear to be a change. Michigan, on the other hand, has a higher unionization rate and also a faster rate of decline.
Indeed, looking at the number of union members shows very small declines. In the year prior to the passage of right-to-work, there were 93,814 union members in Oklahoma. In 2011, this had fallen to 93,513 members — a decrease of just 301 union members, or 0.3 percent. The number of union members in the U.S. as a whole decreased by 9.4 percent over the same period.
Idaho, which reports much greater volatility in union membership over the period, had 31,640 union members in 1984, which fell to 30,560 in 2011: a decrease of 1,080 members, or 3.4 percent. The nation as a whole at this time lost 14.6 percent of its union members. Idaho likewise shows that RTW does not cause union membership to drop off.
If right-to-work legislation is about what detractors have asserted — that it’s about eliminating unions — then it would be a poor strategy. It’s an ineffective way of decreasing unionization in the states that have adopted it. Instead, these detractors should give greater credence to what supporters say it is about: giving workers the choice whether to join a union or not.