The U.S. Labor Department reported on Wednesday that the number of union members nationwide fell by 400,000 from 2011 to 2012, and the share of workers in unions dropped from 11.8% to 11.3%.
Many reporters and pundits have tried to connect this undoubtedly bad news for Big Labor to the passage of Right to Work laws in Indiana and Michigan last year and of a public-sector union monopoly-bargaining rollback — including Right to Work protections for most civil servants — in Wisconsin in 2011.
Union membership did indeed fall sharply in all three of these states. However, in the case of Michigan it seems quite far-fetched to tie the decline to a ban on forced union dues that was only enacted in December and won’t take effect until this spring.
Moreover, as the chart in the California AFL-CIO news release linked above shows, seven of the 10 states with the greatest absolute gains in union membership last year were Right to Work states, while eight of the 10 with the greatest losses were forced-unionism states.
This is no one-year anomaly. From 2001 to 2011, according to data furnished on the unionstats.com web site, union membership declined by 9.4% in forced-unionism states as a group, a slightly greater fall than the 9.0% average for Right to Work states.
The fact is, Right to Work laws aren’t intended to hurt (or help) unions. When unions are doing a poor job, Right to Work laws do empower employees to send a strong message of discontent by quitting and cutting off all their dues money. In forced-unionism states, quitting a union is largely a symbolic act, since as long as they stay on the job ex-union members routinely have to keep paying dues.
On the other hand, Right to Work laws can prod unions into doing a better job in order not to lose members. And unions that do better by their members also tend to do better by the employers of the workers they represent. When unions are actually facilitating more effective collaboration between front-line employees and managers rather than fomenting class warfare, the business is more apt to grow rather than shrink. And that likely increases the number of union members over time.
Right to Work laws can thus have a detrimental or a positive impact on unions, depending upon how union officials react when employees get genuine freedom of choice. Either way, employees benefit.