Currently in the United States there are 23 “Right to Work” states. Alabama, Arizona, Arkansas, Florida, Georgia, Idaho, Indiana, Iowa, Kansas, Louisiana, Mississippi, Nebraska, Nevada, North Carolina, North Dakota, Oklahoma, South Carolina, South Dakota, Tennessee, Texas, Utah, Virginia and Wyoming. You might notice from this list that every state that borders Montana is a right to work state.

Before going too much further I should define what a Right To Work State is for readers who may have heard the term but are unclear as to its meaning. Right to work laws in the United States are allowed under provisions of the Taft-Hartley Act. Right to work prohibits agreements between labor unions and employers making union membership or payment of dues or fees a condition of employment, either before or after hiring.

There is no question that unions served a valuable service to workers as the industrial age evolved. Many unethical employers exploited workers who badly needed work and put up with poor working conditions, low wages coupled with longer hours worked, and no discernible benefits. Thanks, in part, to union efforts we now have wage and hour laws, OSHA, EEOC (Equal Employment Opportunities Commission) and discrimination laws. Many employers now offer health care, profit sharing, 401k plans and pension plans. Although many believe these would have happened naturally as the country and economy evolved.

Unintended consequences of employee protection laws

With more government employee protections in place, and state right to work laws, the role of unions in the private sector diminished. In 1980 twenty-three percent of Americans belonged to labor unions. By 2009 that figure fell to 12.3%. There are now 770,000 fewer union members than in 2008.

If unions were going to survive they needed to attract new groups to their membership roles that didn’t have the problems they faced in the private sector. They began to target the public sector. Teachers, government workers, and health care professionals. These groups had a major advantage to the unions when compared to the private sector. In the private sector, unions could demand unreasonably high wages or benefits and force the company out of business. The unions quickly realized that states, counties and cities could not fail. If the union demanded more money, the only recourse to the government entity was to increase their income – and that usually meant raising taxes and fees on the populous.

Another disadvantage unions faced in the private sector was competition from non-union companies. As we have seen with the automotive industry, companies like Honda located in right to work states and produced a competitive product against Ford, GM and Chrysler who were saddled with all sorts of union imposed costs.

The unions realized that there is no competition in cities and states. I can’t walk across the street to “Fishing Licenses for Less,” and get a cheaper license than I can get from the state. The government holds a monopoly on certain necessary services and the fees or taxes charged for those services.

Union expenses are paid with dues based on member’s paychecks. The average state or local government worker earns $39.83 per hour compared to $27.49 in the private sector. Eighty percent of state and local workers have some form of pension plan while only 50% of private sector workers do. Not only are we, the taxpayers, paying more for similar services done in the private sector but we are also footing the bill for union dues and fees for union membership deducted from the employee’s paycheck.

An additional downside for the union worker is the absence of any chance for incentive pay. A union worker can work as hard as they want but they will not see another dime unless it’s in the collective bargaining agreement. Union opponents suggest this encourages workers to work just hard enough not to get fired. I wonder how much education and healthcare could be improved if those delivering it could be paid for their excellence?

For the first time in history, public sector union membership has passed private sector membership. Remember at the beginning of this article I mentioned the need for unions when workers were being abused? Unions did protect workers from profit driven, unscrupulous, employers that provided poor working conditions and low wages in the private sector. But what protections are needed today for the worker in the public sector? Aren’t state and local union members working for the people we elected to represent our best interests? Did we elect anyone who assured us they would raise property taxes so government workers could get a raise? Do we elect profit driven, unscrupulous, leaders who are out to get the government worker?

Some Final Thoughts

Illinois deficits have been in the news a lot lately. In that state, The American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees (AFSCME) Council 31 funded the “Fair Budget Illinois” campaign in 2009. The campaign ran television and radio ads requesting voters to approve tax increases rather than spending cuts to reduce that states deficit. Illinois recently raised both their state income tax and state corporate tax.

“Every Illinoisan depends on public services, so everyone has a stake in this budget debate,” AFSCME Council 31 executive director Henry Bayer said. “A budget without new revenue will force devastating cuts to education, health care, law enforcement, transportation, human services and more. We urge legislators to support a tax increase to preserve these essential public services, prevent tens of thousands of layoffs and pay the state’s bills.”

In Washington State, unions are pressuring the legislature to raise taxes. In response, labor unions are threatening to withhold donations and fund primary campaigns against the Democrats who will not vote for tax hikes.

Right now Montana is an attractive state for income and corporate taxes, how long that will last as a non-right to work state is anyone’s guess. The NLRB (National Labor Relations Board), a government agency, is working to keep a private company, Boeing, from opening a plant in South Carolina, a right to work state. The House passed a bill to limit the NLRB’s power but the NLRB eventually dropped the suit. Is this government protecting the worker? I would say not. Could Montana be in someone’s cross hairs?