Why Unions Matter So Much

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The details of the right-to-work debate can be technical, but they’re worth taking a minute to understand. Above all, the laws mandate that nonunionized workers cannot be required to pay the equivalent of union dues, even if the union is negotiating pay and benefits on the workers’ behalf. Many contracts call for a company’s management and union to agree on pay and benefits for all workers in a given job category, regardless of their union status.

The central argument in favor of the laws is based on individual freedom: Why should workers have to pay dues to a union to which they don’t belong? The very term “right to work,” coined by a Dallas Morning News editorial writer in 1941, evokes freedom. The central argument against the laws is grounded in economics: They allow nonunionized workers to become free riders, receiving the advantages of collective bargaining without paying for it.

Wherever you fall on this debate, the laws clearly have an impact. They lead union membership to decline, as more workers choose not to pay dues and instead take home more money in the short term. Eventually, the laws do enough to weaken unions that they disappear from some workplaces.

In the long term, the decline of unions tends to hurt workers: A large recent study, consistent with other research, found that union members made about 20 percent more on average than nonunionized workers who were otherwise similar. The additional wages often came out of corporate profits, which explains why the decline of unions has contributed to rising economic inequality. The shrinking of unions effectively redistributes income from low- and middle-income workers to affluent investors.

(In a new Times Magazine essay about American poverty, the sociologist Matthew Desmond writes: “With unions largely out of the picture, corporations have chipped away at the conventional midcentury work arrangement, which involved steady employment, opportunities for advancement and raises and decent pay with some benefits.”)

Then there are the political effects of unions. They help turn out voters and focus voters on economic issues. That focusing role is significant because of a fact that I’ve often covered in this newsletter: Many working-class Americans hold progressive economic views while also being religious, patriotic and socially moderate.

When a labor union talks to these voters about economic policy, they become more likely to vote for a Democrat. When they are not in a union, they may instead be swayed to vote Republican by their evangelical church or Fox News. A 2018 academic study, comparing counties on either side of a state border, found that the passage of a right-to-work law reduced the Democratic Party’s vote share by about three percentage points on average.

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