Report | Unions and Labor Standards

Does ‘right-to-work’ create jobs? Answers from Oklahoma

Briefing Paper #300

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As the country strives to recover from the worst recession since the Great Depression, lawmakers in several states are being told that the key to solving their state’s unemployment woes is adopting so-called “right-to-work” statutes.

Misleadingly named right-to-work (RTW) laws do not, as some unfamiliar with the term may assume, entail any guarantee of employment for those ready and willing to work. Rather, they make it illegal for a group of unionized workers to negotiate a contract that requires each employee who enjoys the benefit of the contract to pay his or her share of the costs of negotiating and policing it. By making it harder for workers’ organizations to sustain themselves financially, RTW laws aim to restrict the share of state employees who are able to represent themselves through collective bargaining, and to limit the effectiveness of unions in negotiating higher wages and benefits for their members. Because it lowers wages and benefits, weakens workplace protections, and decreases the likelihood that employers will be required to negotiate with their employees, RTW is advanced as a strategy for attracting new businesses to locate in a state.

Right-to-work laws have been implemented in 22 states, predominantly in the South and Southwest, starting as far back as 1947. But what is their actual track record in spurring employment growth? And what is the likelihood that, in today’s economy, a state deciding to adopt the 23rd right-to-work statute would see its job market improve?

This report examines the track record of right-towork laws in boosting employment growth. In particular, we examine in depth the experience of Oklahoma, which in 2001 became the most recent state to adopt an RTW law. The majority of RTW states enacted their laws more than 30 years ago; the second-most recent statute adopted is that of Idaho, passed in 1985. Because economic conditions have changed greatly in the past decades, and because better data are available for more recent years, the case of Oklahoma is particularly illuminating regarding the potential impact of such laws on states considering them.

Despite ambitious claims by proponents, the evidence is overwhelming that:

• Right-to-work laws have not succeeded in boosting employment growth in the states that have adopted them.

• The case of Oklahoma – closest in time to the conditions facing those states now considering such legislation – is particularly discouraging regarding the law’s ability to spur job growth. Since the law passed in 2001, manufacturing employment and relocations into the state reversed their climb and began to fall, precisely the opposite of what right-to-work advocates promised.

• For those states looking beyond traditional or low wage manufacturing jobs – whether to higher-tech manufacturing, to “knowledge” sector jobs, or to service industries dependent on consumer spending in the local economy – there is reason to believe that right-to-work laws may actually harm a state’s economic prospects.

See more work by Sylvia A. Allegretto and Gordon Lafer