Right-to-Work laws prevent a union from requiring a worker to pay dues or fees as a condition of employment. Put simply, it means that a union cannot get a worker fired for not paying them.
That is all Right to Work does. Unions, workers and their employers can still collectively bargain over wages, hours, benefits and all other working conditions. Anything they could negotiate over before a Right-to-Work law they can negotiate over after a Right-to-Work law is passed.
Those leading the efforts against Right to Work in Illinois seem to have a misunderstanding of what the law would actually do.
Several Illinois politicians mischaracterized the issue on May 14 during a floor debate on Right to Work instigated by an amendment to House Bill 1286 brought by House Speaker Mike Madigan.
Below are a few quotes from opponents of worker freedom during the floor debate:
State Rep. John Bradley, D-Marion:
“This is a vote as to whether or not my father, a school teacher, has the right to organize without being deemed illegal for doing so … This is a vote about the values of the people of the state of Illinois and the right of men and women to organize in our state, the state of Illinois.”
State Rep. Greg Harris, D-Chicago:
“Those of us, such as myself, who oppose limiting the ability of men and women in organized labor to organize themselves, to collectively bargaining and assert their rights, we’re going to vote against it.”
State Rep. Lou Lang, D-Skokie:
“Here’s the governor’s language: ‘I want to have a Right-to-Work bill for two reasons. First, I just want to have one. Second, I want to break the labor unions in the state of Illinois.’”
To reiterate, Right to Work does not affect the ability to organize. Workers can and do form unions in Right-to-Work states as well as collectively bargain. In fact, Right-to-Work Indiana tied for first in the country for adding new union members in 2014. Strong union growth like that would be difficult or impossible if claims of Right to Work limiting organizing ability, making it illegal or breaking unions were true.
State Rep. Sue Scherer, D-Decatur, went even further, saying Right to Work was an affront to American values.
“In my opinion Right to Work, the name of it in and of itself, is a misnomer,” she said. “In my opinion what Right to Work does is it takes away the very rights that our country was founded on. It takes away the right for a person of the middle class to earn a decent living.”
Scherer’s comments about the name being a misnomer may sound like a good talking point, but the name “Right to Work” is accurate. It means employees have the right to work at a job without supporting a third party. Without the law, workers who work at a unionized jobsite must submit to associate and pay a private organization that is not affiliated with their employer and which they may disagree with.
Giving workers the freedom of whom to associate with and what to support is a hallmark of American freedom. And allowing unions to prove their worth to their membership and not take their dues for granted will make them stronger.
Of course, all of these opposing arguments come from elected officials and union leaders who likely do not have any actual experience with Right to Work. Those that do have a vastly different perspective.
Gary Casteel, secretary-treasurer for the United Auto Workers, said the following while he was in charge of organizing autoworkers in southern Right-to-Work states:
“I’ve never understood [why] people think Right to Work hurts unions … To me, it helps them. You don’t have to belong if you don’t want to. So if I go to an organizing drive, I can tell these workers, ‘If you don’t like this arrangement, you don’t have to belong.’ Versus, ‘If we get 50 percent of you, then all of you have to belong, whether you like to or not.’ I don’t even like the way that sounds, because it’s a voluntary system, and if you don’t think the system’s earning its keep, then you don’t have to pay.”
Similarly, Doug Pratt, director of member and political engagement for the Right-to-Work state of Michigan’s largest union, the Michigan Education Association, said that Right to Work caused his union to increase their efforts to “explain to our members why membership is of value,” and further, that “We’re stronger because of it …”
Finally, the detractors of Right to Work often fall back on incorrect economic arguments to demonize the idea.
AFSCME Local 1514 President Tony Miller, who represents Aurora, Illinois, city employees, recently stated in the union newsletter that “I think ‘right-to-work’ takes away a lot of your bargaining power … When you do not have the ability to bargain over wages and benefits, you start seeing a bigger disparity between the haves and the have-nots.”
These arguments are hard to reconcile with national employment numbers. According to U.S. Department of Labor data, Right-to-Work states have lower unemployment (especially for minorities), higher wage growth, higher population growth, higher jobs growth and higher GDP growth. When cost of living is factored in, workers in Right-to-Work states make about 4 percent more.
It’s hard to see how more people moving to a state that has more jobs is bad for a state’s economy, or how workers having more wage growth and more disposable income harms them.
When all the rhetoric is stripped away, Right to Work is about one thing: freedom. Every other issue, good or perceived bad, is secondary, even the positive economic statistics from Right-to-Work states. Allowing workers to decide whether or not to support a union gives them more freedom, makes unions more responsive to their membership, and is better for Illinoisans.
F. Vincent Vernuccio is a Senior Fellow with Illinois Policy Institute.