Commentary | Unions and Labor Standards

Here’s the Truth About Oregon’s ‘Right-to-Work’ Initiative

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This piece originally appeared in the The Oregonian.

In his recent commentary, Steve Buckstein of the Cascade Policy Institute calls his ballot initiative ”right to work,” but IP9 has nothing to do with guaranteeing anyone a job (“Nearly a third of Oregon union workers want out,” June 24).

So-called right-to-work laws have nothing to do with anyone being forced to be a member of a union or to support political causes he or she disagrees with. It is already the law that no one in Oregon can be forced to be a member of a union or be forced to contribute even a single cent to politicians or political causes he or she opposes.

The only thing the law allows is that if a majority of employees and their employer agree, they can sign a contract that requires each employee who benefits from the terms of a union contract to pay his or her fair share of the costs of negotiating and administering that contract. That’s it. So-called right-to-work laws make it illegal for employees and employers to negotiate that kind of “fair share” arrangement.

People who have a union contract benefit from it, and if they didn’t, they would vote to disband the union or replace its leadership, both of which are easy to do.

On average, if you take two people in the same occupation and the same industry, with the same age and education level, but one having a union and the other not — the person with a union will make an average of 15 percent more per year and have a 20 percent to 25 percent better chance of receiving health insurance and a pension through his job.

Someone who works in a unionized workplace but chooses not to join the union still gets all the benefits of the contract. Furthermore, if that person encounters a problem at work, the union is required by law to provide all the same help it would to a dues-paying member.

Right-to-work laws tell people that they can get all the benefits and services of a union contract, but that paying their share of the costs that make that contract possible is optional. In this situation, many people choose not to pay dues, not because they’re anti-union but because times are tight.

If we were told that paying the taxes that fund the fire department would now be optional but the firefighters would still come to put out the flames if our house were to catch fire, many people would not pay those taxes. It’s not because they don’t value the fire department, but because when times are tight, optional bills go unpaid. Ultimately, the organization, whether fire department or union, becomes financially unable to sustain itself. This is the true goal of so-called right-to-work laws.

Cascade issued a report last year claiming that Oregon’s economy would be better if it adopted a right-to-work law. In fact, though, 2001-2011 data on household income by state show that Oregon families have higher incomes — and our incomes have grown faster over the past decade — than three-quarters of the states with so-called right-to-work laws.

But the Cascade report looked at states that passed right-to-work laws for the private sector — Cascade thinks that by weakening unions, we’ll attract more companies to locate in our state. But this is irrelevant to the Oregon ballot initiative, which affects only public sector employees. No California or Washington school district, water district or DMV office is going to move to Oregon because we changed our labor law. Buckstein’s column is filled with numbers from a report that studied something completely different from the initiative he’s urging us to support.

As Martin Luther King Jr. noted long ago, “We must guard against being fooled by false slogans such as ‘right to work.’ … Wherever these laws have been passed, wages are lower, job opportunities are fewer and there are no civil rights. … We demand this fraud be stopped.”

King’s words remain as true today as when they were uttered.

Mary King is a professor of economics at Portland State University. Gordon Lafer is an associate professor in the Labor Education and Research Center at the University of Oregon. 

See more work by Gordon Lafer