Right-to-work brings new challenge to labor

Barring an unforeseen development, West Virginia will soon become the 26th state to adopt a right-to-work law.  The Workplace Freedom Act (SB 1) has already passed the Senate (18-16, along party lines) and is now moving through the House of Delegates.

Last week’s 55-44 vote to pass a bill eliminating prevailing wage was an indication that the votes are there for right-to-work.  Governor Tomblin will veto the right-to-work bill, but Republicans have enough votes to override.

Right-to-work will not be an economic panacea.  The often quoted (and criticized) study by WVU’s Bureau of Business and Economic Research last year determined that “RTW policy leads to long-run rates of GDP growth that are around .5 percentage point higher than non-RTW states.”

West Virginia’s real GDP is about $65 billion, so an increase of one-half-of one percent in growth would equal about $325 million. The study also found a 1.4 percent job rate growth in RTW states over the last two decades, compared with one percent in non-RTW states.

That’s needed improvement, but it’s certainly not a boom.

Also remember Governor Tomblin and Commerce Secretary Keith Burdette insist that right-to-work has never come up in discussions with prospective businesses. That’s either because RTW really isn’t a factor or any business interested in coming here already knows West Virginia is not a right-to-work state.

The WVU study also determined that union membership tends to decline in right-to-work states. That’s self-evident since RTW eliminates the ability of unions to require workers to join or pay dues as a condition of employment.

While that’s a blow to union power, it’s not a death knell.  Instead, it may give rise here to “members-only agreements” where unions represent only the workers who choose to belong. The unions are under no obligation to provide any representation or services for non-union workers.

Moshe Marvit and Leigh Anne Schriever, writing in the progressive publication In These Times, said members-only unions could “breathe life back into the labor movement.”

“One benefit to the members-only approach is in order to survive, these unions must be built upon activism, involvement, and democratic governance,” they wrote.  “While weak members-only unions lose their membership and disappear, strong members-only unions have developed through the robust process of grass roots organizing and recruiting, tapping into already formed workplace and community networks.”

In other words, faced with threats to their traditional membership that comes with right-to-work, progressive labor leaders can adapt with the creation of “mico-unions.”  Vince Vernuccio with the free market Mackinac Center for Public Policy says, “Unions could use these micro-unions as just a stepping stone toward the ultimate goal of exclusively representing the entire workplace.”

The inevitability of the passage of right-to-work in West Virginia means the business-labor landscape is changing. That does not have to mean the end of labor unions. It does, however, mean the labor movement must adapt.



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