In an email to constituents, Ohio Sen. Sherrod Brown wrote, “Republicans in the Ohio House have introduced multiple bills that would turn our state into a so-called Right-to-Work state — one of the ugliest tricks in the right-wing playbook when it comes to attacking working men and women.” Additionally, “Senate Bill 5 wasn’t the extreme right’s last gasp. They’re still plotting to destroy our middle class.”
Hyperbole (and Kasich’s trend of moderation) aside, Brown refers, of course, to the concept of Right to Work. Simply put, in Ohio, workers at union shops are compelled to join the union and pay dues. They have the right to opt out, but are subject to paying a “fair share” of dues, anyway, and are subject to harassment from fellow employees and labor reps.
In other words, Ohio is an “opt out” state. Workers are assumed to be members of the union and are effectively compelled to do as a condition of employment. Right to work laws make joining a union “opt in,” requiring workers to affirm that they wish to join the union.
Organized labor opposes right to work laws for one key reason: Given the option, a significant portion of workers would, indeed, opt out of union membership. In turn, union rolls would likely decline, perhaps dramatically (see Wisconsin).
Sen. Brown cares about this not because of some “attack” on workers, but because of ancillary effects. Labor unions are major campaign contributors to the Democratic Party, of which Brown is a member. Reducing the number of unionized workers will necessarily reduce the number of dues-payers to the unions, which will reduce campaign contributions to Sen. Brown’s next reelection campaign.
This is also a fight for survival for labor unions. Their numbers have been dwindling for years and they comprise only 12.6% of the workforce in Ohio, despite Democratic overtures about attacks on the middle class as a whole. Right to work laws would only aid this decline—hence the relative hysteria.
As for the charge of some sort of “attack” on workers, Brown and co. refer to wages, which tend to be higher among unionized workers than non-unionized workers in like industries. While there is data to support this idea, there is more to it than that: Unions tend to price workers out of jobs by artificially raising wages. If a company can employ, say, 10 workers at $9/hour unorganized, they may only be able to employ 8 or 9 workers if the collective bargaining agreement mandates $10/hour. So if you are on the inside, you are likely to favor holding on to what you have; but if you are on the outside looking in—that is, jobless—you might want that job, even at the theoretically reduced wage. The Great Depression is a prime example of this phenomenon.
Lost in the debate is another interest: free association rights. The First Amendment to the Constitution reads: “Congress shall make no law…abridging…the right of the people peaceably to assemble.” That is, the people have the right to associate with whomever they wish; and they also have the right not to associate with anyone.
While the left tends to focus on the wages of unionized workers relative to non-unionized workers and “free riders,” and while the right tends to focus on the generally superior economic performance of right to work states over forced unionization states, few commentators argue on behalf of the worker’s right to freely associate or not with a particular organization. Forcing a worker to join a union would appear on the surface to violate a person’s right to associate or not associate freely.
This would seem to be more of an “attack” on a larger number of people than merely reaffirming an already-enshrined constitutional right.
Ultimately, right to work would probably prove to be a popular law—or laws, per Brown’s characterization. Last year, a Quinnipiac poll showed strong support for right to work among Ohio voters.