‘Right to work’ is a race to the bottom

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An anti-right to work sign is displayed on a statue of Abraham Lincoln outside a building where hundreds of union protesters on April 16 attended a Livingston County board meeting in Pontiac, Ill. The board was set to consider a resolution supporting Republican Gov. Bruce Rauner’s proposed “right to work” zones.

When Gov. Bruce Rauner talks about making Illinois a “right-to-work” state, it may not sound that bad to you. I mean, shouldn’t we all have the right to work? The right to earn a living and provide for our families? The right to seek success, to build our careers, and to achieve our share of the American Dream?


The trouble is, when the governor talks about the “right to work,” he’s not talking about our fundamental right as Americans to earn a fair day’s pay for a good day’s work. In fact, the governor’s “right to work” means just the opposite — it’s actually a mechanism that gives greedy corporations the right to pay below-market wages, the right to fire people without good cause, and the right to ignore the labor unions that are committed to making our nation’s middle-class workers prosperous and secure.

Right now, Illinois is a “fair share” state. That means that, if a majority of employees in a workplace vote to be represented by a labor union that will negotiate on their behalf, workers who opt out of union membership must still pay a fee to the union. That fee covers their “fair share” of the cost of bargaining, implementing and enforcing the contract. In “right-to-work” states, non-union workers are not required to pay those fees. As a result, their unions may not have the resources they need to forge a strong bargain and make sure the employer abides by it.

Gov. Rauner and the shadowy special interests that are demanding new “right-to-work” laws in Illinois municipalities claim they are just trying to empower local communities and stimulate economic growth. But research shows that these misnamed “right-to-work” laws actually undermine a state’s economy, pushing down average wages across the board for union and non-union workers alike.

According to data from the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics and the U.S. Census Bureau, the average non-union wages in “fair share” states, such as Illinois, are 10.2 percent higher than non-union wages in “right to work” states. In fact, last year the average wages in non-union households in Illinois outpaced average non-union wages in almost every “right to work” state in the Union. (The sole exception is Virginia, where average wages are skewed by the thousands of extremely well-paid lobbyists – many of them hired by those same shadowy special interests – who live in exclusive Virginia suburbs outside Washington D.C.).

A recent study from the Economic Policy Institute, a non-partisan Washington-based think tank that focuses on labor research, found that, even after controlling for a wide range of varying labor market conditions, average overall (union and non-union) wages in “right-to-work” states are about 3 percent lower than in “fair share” states like ours. That means the typical full-time worker in a “right-to-work” state makes $1,558 less each year than the average worker in a state like Illinois.

That’s no surprise. Because the true goal of “right-to-work” laws is to reduce wages for working men and women, union and non-union alike. That’s why those wealthy special interests are willing to spend so much to promote “right-to-work” legislation and elect anti-union candidates, like Bruce Rauner, who will put those “right-to-work” laws at the very top of their political agendas.

We can’t expect to strengthen Illinois’ economy by pitting middle-class workers against one another in a race to the bottom that ends in lower wages and fewer opportunities for everyone. Instead, we need to build an agenda that will drive economic growth by playing to Illinois’ strengths: expanding and building on our highly skilled work force, promoting innovation and strengthening our world-class infrastructure.

Don’t be fooled the next time you hear about a law that will give you the “right to work.” As an American, you already have the right to work hard every day. What you need – what we all need – is the right to thrive.

Ben Winick is vice president for policy for Innovation Illinois, a nonpartisan research and advocacy organization dedicated to promoting progressive public policies.

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