Right-to-work debate is a numbers game
By Eric Boehm | PA Independent
HARRISBURG — In a difficult economy, advocates for eliminating the mandatory payment of union dues by non-union workers say the changes could make Pennsylvania a more competitive state for jobs.
But the new rules could mean lower wages, argue labor unions, and with Pennsylvania’s unemployment rate of 7.8 percent ranking among the best in the nation, many question why anything should change.
Republicans this fall are expected to push legislation, making Pennsylvania the nation’s 23rd state to adopt so-called “right-to-work” laws. In doing so, the state would repeal laws requiring non-union workers in union shops to pay about 75 percent of the typical union dues as a condition of employment.
The business community said the new laws will give employers and employees more flexibility and make Pennsylvania more attractive to businesses.
“Given the current economic and budgetary concerns within Pennsylvania, it is unimaginable that state officials would continue to allow polices that deny workers' their fundamental rights, impede job growth or discourage businesses to locate or remain here," said Kevin Shivers, director of the Pennsylvania chapter of the National Federation of Independent Businesses, which represents small businesses in the state.
Legislation has been introduced in both chambers of the General Assembly, and Gov. Tom Corbett has voiced his willingness to sign a right-to-work bill if it came across his desk.
However, labor unions argue that the changes would hurt workers by lowering the high wages created by the collective bargaining process, resulting in benefits for employers by putting more money in the pockets of business owners.
“Right to work allows employers to have more leverage over their employees to continue taking money from the bottom to pad the top,” said Abraham Amoros, Pennsylvania legislative director for the Laborers’ International Union of North America, which represents 500,000 workers. Amoros said unions were responsible for creating higher wages for workers, and undermining unions would result in lower wages.
Both sides have statistics that seem to back up their arguments. When it comes to the most common economic indicator — the unemployment rate — being a right-to-work state seems to have made little difference during the Great Recession.
Of the 22 states that have right-to-work laws on the books, 10 had lower jobless rates than Pennsylvania and 12 had higher unemployment rates in July, the latest month for which data is available. The states cover a wide range, from North Dakota's 3.3 percent unemployment to Nevada's rate of 12.7, according to U.S. Department of Labor.
But job growth is on the rise in many right-to-work states, primarily Texas. The Lone Star State has seen job growth of 13.5 percent since 1999, while Pennsylvania’s growth during the same period is only 0.6 percent, according to the U.S. Department of Labor.
The Tax Foundation, a Washington, D.C., tax policy nonprofit, tracks tax returns filed in every state to determine how shifts in population affect working by tracking the Social Security numbers of income tax returns filed with the IRS each year.
Between 1999 and 2008, Pennsylvania saw an overall decline of 84,000 tax returns. The top three destinations for people leaving Pennsylvania during that time – Florida, Virginia and North Carolina – are all right to work states. The data is the most recent available.
But union leaders dismiss those figures.
“Most likely, the employment figures from states that restrict workers’ rights are inflated with huge numbers of part-time, seasonal and undocumented workers,” said Richard Bloomingdale, president of the Pennsylvania AFL-CIO, an umbrella group for smaller labor unions.
He said the states that are more frequently right to work are generally less dependent on heavy industries, which makes their employment gains appear to be better than they actually are.
Instead, Bloomingdale pointed to Pennsylvania’s median weekly wages, which, he said, are about $60 higher than the median weekly wage in the 22 states with right-to-work laws.
During a hearing on the right-to-work proposals recently, some Democrats pointed to the lower quality of life and economic problems plaguing some right-to-work states, particularly in the Deep South.
“It’s a shame in 2011 that we are talking about this legislation, especially in Pennsylvania,” said state Rep. John Galloway, D-Bucks. “The idea that we would want to be more like Mississippi is something I don’t even want to talk about.”
The debate also hinges on the state Constitution that reads “all men are born equally free and independent,” which some tea party groups argue is violated by rules requiring payment of union dues by non-union workers.
“Being compelled to belong to any private organization including a labor union as a condition of employment is inconsistent with the fundamental and traditional American values or liberty and freedom of choice,” said James Billman, chairman of the Berks County Patriots, a grassroots group, in a letter to members of the House Labor and Industry Committee.
The state unemployment rate was 7.8 percent for July, considerably below the national rate of 9.1 percent, but up from 7.4 percent in May. Shivers said optimism is low within the business community at the moment.
Pennsylvania lost jobs for the second consecutive month in July, according to the state Bureau of Labor Statistics. Those losses come on the heels of more than a full year of month-by-month job gains, stoking fears of a “double-dip” recession in the state, which has rebounded from an unemployment rate of 8.8 in April 2010.