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Fact and Fiction About Right-to-Work: A Reality Check at the One-Year Anniversary

Opponents predicted economic collapse, dangerous workplaces and other things that didn't happen

Opponents of Michigan adopting a right-to-work law predicted dire consequences for the state if workers were given the right to decide if they wanted to opt-out of paying money to a union as a condition of employment.

But their claims were largely just hyperbole.

One year ago Wednesday, the capitol lawn was packed with protesters as the Legislature passed a bill that made Michigan the 24th right-to-work state in the nation. 

In the days, weeks and years leading up to the law being signed, a lot of predictions were made by union officials, politicians, academics and activists. Here's a look back at some of those statements and what has happened over the past year.

President Barack Obama"What they're really talking about is giving you the right to work for less money."

Senate Minority Leader Gretchen Whitmer, D-East Lansing: "… You want to pass right-to-work legislation that hurts workers and our economy by lowering employee wages, benefits and workplace protections." 

Michigan Education Association website"Right-to-work would mean lower wages and benefits for all Michigan workers, regardless of if they're in a union."

The most common claim from opponents of right-to-work laws is that the law will force lower wages and benefits for workers, but the evidence does not back this up. First, it should be noted that it is difficult to examine what right-to-work laws by themselves do to states because there are a lot of factors in large economies (labor rules, regulatory environment, tax rates, etc.).

But multiple studies show the economic effects of right-to-work to be positive for income growth.

The simplest way to determine whether the above claims are true is by examining U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics data for Michigan and other states that passed right-to-work laws.

While most of the 2013 data on wages and income has yet to be released, what has been made available is encouraging. According to BLS statistics, average earnings of private-sector employees in Michigan have increased 3.3 percent from October 2012 to October 2013. 

Over the longer-term, according to federal data, in the past decade right-to-work states have had an increase in jobs of 3.5 percent while non-right-to-work states have had a job decrease of 2.6 percent. And adjusted for the cost of living, employees in right-to-work states have 4.1 percent higher incomes than forced unionization states and 14 percent higher incomes than Michigan workers.

For October 2013 (the latest date for which statistics are available), right-to-work states averaged an unemployment rate of 6.9 percent versus a rate of 7.6 for forced unionization states.

Rep. Brandon Dillon, D-Grand Rapids"…workplace safety accidents skyrocket in right-to-work states."

With federal rules governed by the Occupational Safety and Health Administration coupled with the threat of lawsuits, employers have incentive to keep their workers safe. 

While right-to-work states have a slightly higher rate of workplace fatalities, as James Hohman has written previously: "The very dangerous occupations are concentrated in just a couple of industries and in occupations like farming, fishing and forestry regardless of whether the state has a right-to-work law." At the same time, workplace injury rates are actually lower in right-to-work states than forced unionization states.

The two most recent states that passed right-to-work laws before Michigan have good data to hammer this point home. Oklahoma's average workplace injuries decreased 42.4 percent in the decade since it became a right-to-work state. And Indiana, which changed its laws governing unionization at the start of 2012, saw workplace fatalities drop 10 percent (from 125 to 113) from 2011 to 2012. Indiana's workplace injury rate also dropped 7 percent in the year after becoming a right-to-work state.

Assorted sources"Right-to-work destroys unions."

It's true that right-to-work states have a lower percentage of unionized workers, but those states have always had a lower rate of unionization. So the statement above is not totally clear.

In fact, in recent years coming out of the recession, the gains in union membership have been happening in worker freedom states while forced unionization states shed members. According to the BLS, from 2011 to 2012 (the most recent years available), the 22 states that were right-to-work at that time saw an overall increase of 39,000 union members while non-right-to-work states lost 390,000 union members.

Oklahoma passed its right-to-work law in 2000. At the time, it had 96,000 union members. In 2012, that number was 115,000.

UAW President Bob King"There will be no middle class without collective bargaining. There will be no middle class without unions in America.”

Considering that unions represent only a fraction of the total workforce, it is questionable whether they have much impact on the middle class anymore. Besides, median household incomes have risen faster in right-to-work states than non-right-to-work states. That may also be why, according to the Census Bureau, right-to-work states saw an increase in residents ages 25 to 34 of 11.3 percent from 2000 to 2011, while about 5 million people total moved from non-right-to-work states to right-to-work states from 2000 to 2009.

Rep. Doug Geiss, D-Taylor"We're going to do something that will undo 100 years of labor relations and there will be blood, there will be repercussions."

This one is partially true in that some union members and union supporters who protested the right-to-work bill turned to violence on the capitol lawn. But the point of the statement seemed to be aimed at the idea that people would not get along as side-by-side union and non-union workers. But that's been the norm in many states for decades with no apparent continual problems.

Rev. Charles Williams II"Just know one thing, Rick Snyder, you sign that bill, you won't get no rest. We'll meet you on Geddes Road. We'll be at your daughter's soccer game. We'll visit you at your church. We'll be at your office."

No word on whether union protesters showed up at the governor's home, church or office. But it is unlikely that they made it to his 17-year-old daughter's soccer games because she only participates in softball, according to a profile on AnnArbor.com.

As our colleague Michael LaFaive showed in his recent study on right-to-work, the economic benefits of the law can take years to truly unfold and that likely will be the case in Michigan.

But as Mackinac Center President Joe Lehman noted recently, "The financial relief to individual workers is immediate when they no longer have to support a union upon pain of being fired."

~~~~~

See also:

CapCon Right-to-Work Coverage

Michigan Residents Doing Better Financially

Michigan's Increased Unemployment the Result of Growing Labor Force

A Look at Michigan's June Spike In Unemployment Rate

Michigan Radio Doubles Down on 'Anemic' Job Growth Claim

Majority of Fastest-Growing U.S. Cities Are In Right-to-Work States

Michigan's Job Growth Is More Than Just Auto-Related

Michigan's Gross Domestic Product Grows In 2012

Despite Media Claims, Michigan Among Highest Job Growth States

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