The Joplin Globe, Joplin, MO

May 14, 2013

Elliott Denniston, guest columnist: Right-to-work laws only hurt workers

By Elliott Denniston
Special to The Globe

WEBB CITY, Mo. — Middle-class workers have been fighting an uphill battle for the past 30 years. Now, Republicans in the Missouri Legislature argue that we should tilt the field even more and weaken workers who bargain for better wages by enacting the misnamed right-to-work law. They apparently believe that if we weaken labor unions, we will have cheap labor and businesses will come to Missouri to make more money.

If you believe workers are overpaid and businesses can’t make a fair profit, you haven’t been paying attention.

The Washington Post observed that the productivity of the American worker increased 11 percent over the past six years and “profits and dividends are up and wages are down.” So, where did the money from this increased productivity go? It went to higher corporate profits — the Standard and Poor’s 500 is up 23 percent since 2007 — and to extremely high-paid corporate executives. None of the increased productivity resulted in higher wages for workers.

Remember the Republican pleas to help the “job creators” in the 2012 election? Now it’s time to help workers. Making it harder for workers to bargain for a fair wage does not help workers.

About half of the states in the U.S. have what are known as right-to-work laws, and the Missouri Legislature is working on making Missouri the newest such state. “Right to work” may sound like a noble cause, but there are good reasons opponents call it “right to work for less,” good reasons it fits into the same old pattern of workers being pushed down.

Right-to-work laws basically exempt workers in union companies from paying union dues while these workers benefit from wages and safety measures that are negotiated between the union and management.

Let’s look at the research done over many years comparing right-to-work states with states that don’t have right-to-work laws. Workers in right-to-work states earn about $1,500 less per year than workers in states without these laws, and that includes nonunion members, according to the Economic Policy Institute. Other studies place the earnings loss higher.

A study of median household income in the 22 states that had right-to-work laws in 2009 (the latest year for which there is information) shows that 18 states are below average, while only four are above average.

Besides having significantly lower wages, workers in right-to-work states are less likely to have health insurance. And the Bureau of Labor Statistics reports that the “rate of workplace deaths is 52.9 percent higher in right-to-work states.” The evidence suggests that right-to-work laws are very detrimental to workers.

When right-to-work is put into law, what happens to the affected communities? Quite simply, they are hurt. When wages are lowered by right-to-work, communities lose jobs because there is less spending money. The Economic Policy Institute estimates that “for every $1 million in wage cuts, the local economy sheds six jobs.” Right-to-work does not improve the employment rate; instead, on average, it lowers it.

Although the proponents of the law have framed the message to be a benefit for workers, the major benefit is to companies. If workers do not pay union dues, eventually unions will decline and probably die. This allows companies to hire and fire at will, regardless of the reason. They can reduce or eliminate all benefits and become lax on safety because there is no one to address grievances. Along with working longer hours in some skilled areas, many workers are reduced to working less than a full-time schedule. And many companies have even lobbied to “allow their own personnel” to evaluate safety and other regulations.

There is little disagreement that right-to-work damages unions, which is clearly the purpose behind it. In doing so, it aims to give workers even less power and gives management even more. Some businesses may think weakening workers will benefit them, but the long-term result is an erosion of the American middle class — and that is bad for all of us.

Elliott Denniston lives in rural Webb City.