Gov. Rauner has asked state and local lawmakers to consider adopting union-free business zones. So let’s imagine Illinois as a “right to work” state.
First a clarification. The phrase “right to work” is a misnomer that has little to do with the right of a person to seek and accept gainful employment. Anti-union proponents use “right to work” to refer to an option under federal labor law that allows workers employed by a unionized employer to receive the full benefits of a labor contract without paying for any of the cost to gain those benefits. In fact, no employee anywhere in the country has to join a union and no employer has to sign a labor agreement.
In Illinois, nearly 900,000 workers employed by thousands of union employers are covered by labor-management agreements, which shape the middle class standards that prevail in the state. If, however, Illinois adopted rules that allowed workers to forsake their obligations toward the common good, not only would it violate the fairness principle, but also the capacity to protect the quality of life for all workers would be damaged. Union bargained contracts unquestionably provide workers with higher incomes, more and better benefits and a stronger “voice” in the workplace. However, when workers are encouraged to accept the higher standards of living that flow from unionized workplaces, while also opting out of making any financial contributions to the contracts that protect them, then the capacity of unions to lift up all workers will be compromised.
The results of “right to work” in Illinois for working men and women would be punitive. According to a 2013 University of Illinois study that I co-authored, workers would suffer a substantial income loss from 5.7 percent to 7.3 percent. More damaging to middle class standards, workers would experience the equivalent of a decade-long wage freeze. Additionally, fewer workers would have health insurance and retirement savings. As if this was not bad enough, the losses would be particularly harsh on women and people of color. Overall, in less than a decade, annual total labor income in Illinois would drop by between $35 billion and $40 billion, and the poverty rate would increase by at least 1 percent. That would not only be terrible for the newly poor, but it would be a burden on every citizen of the state, as Illinois would lose $1.5 billion in annual state income tax revenues. If Illinois had been “right to work” in 2013, government assistance from the Earned Income Tax Credit would have been $307.1 million higher, further straining the public budget.
There is no doubt that if Illinois were to become a “right to work” state, the ability of work to lift people into the middle class and provide a ladder to prosperity would be severely handicapped. A lot of workers would be left struggling to hold on to middle class respectability, but not many, if any more people employed, because fraudulent “right to work” laws have no discernible long-term impact on employment growth. In the end, with “right to work” in Illinois, the unilateral authority of employers to determine how men and women should labor for their daily bread would replace workplace democracy. Hard to imagine that kind of Illinois.
Robert Bruno is a professor of labor and employment relations at the University of Illinois.