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Labor Relations in the United States and the National Right to Work Act

Earlier this year, Senator Rand Paul (R-KY) introduced the ‘National Right-to-Work Act,’ a bill which would amend the National Labor Relations Act (also known as the Wagner Act) with the goal of preserving and protecting “the free choice of individual employees to form, join, or assist labor organizations, or to refrain from such activities.” According to the National Labor Relations Board, “Congress enacted the National Labor Relations Act…in 1935 to protect the rights of employees and employers, to encourage collective bargaining, and to curtail certain private sector labor and management practices, which can harm the general welfare of workers, businesses and the U.S. economy.”

As a result of the National Labor Relations Act, the right of employees to collectively bargain through unions was recognized as law in the United States. Under the law, if a majority of a company’s employees vote to form a union, all employees of that company are required to be a part of that union, unless the state in which the company is located has implemented right-to-work-legislation. Essentially, the National Labor Relations Act made union membership mandatory at companies with unionized workforces the rule, not the exception, with the exception coming in states with the foresight to pass right-to-work legislation.

Senator Paul’s proposed ‘National Right-to-Work Act’ would change mandatory union membership from being the rule to being the exception, making right-to-work a national standard that state legislatures would have to opt-out of, rather than opt-into. Rather than focusing on the encouragement of collective bargaining, as the national Labor Relations Act did, Paul’s bill explicitly states the goal of preserving and protecting “the free choice of individual employees to form, join or assist labor organizations, or refrain from such activities.” Both the National Labor Relations Act and Senator Rand Paul’s National Right to Work Act express the goal of protecting employee rights, but only Paul’s proposed bill takes into account the wishes of employees who do not wish to be a part of any union.

Currently, 24 states have right-to-work laws in place, while 26 states do not, and the difference in job growth between right-to-work and non-right-to-work states is stark. According to the National institute for Labor Relations Research, civilian employment in right-to-work states has grown by 1.51 million, or 2.7%, from January 2009 to December 2012. In states without right-to-work, civilian employment decreased by 240,000 jobs over the same time period, a loss of .3%. Additionally, the eight states with the highest job growth rates from January 2009 to December 2012 each have right-to-work laws in place, while seven of the nine states with the worst job losses do not have right-to-work, instead requiring employees to join unions in closed shops.

Given the vast difference in job growth between states with right-to-work and those without, one would wonder why right-to-work is part of the law in only 24 states, or why a national right-to-work act hasn’t become part of federal law sooner. The answer is simple, and was discussed by my colleague John F. Trent in a blog post published on February 15. In his post, John notes that “unions are the war chest and foot soldiers of the Democratic Party.” Without imposing mandatory dues on all employees, unions would lose a significant portion of the money they use to support Democratic candidates and other left-leaning causes. The prospect of losing money from fewer members paying fewer union dues is the reason why thousands of individuals crowded around the state capitol in Madison, Wisconsin to protest changes to only public sector union rights in early 2011, only to be thwarted by the voters of Wisconsin who chose to re-elect Governor Scott Walker in June 2012.

Union-staged protests similar to those that took place in Wisconsin were seen in Michigan after the state began to pursue right-to-work legislation in late-2012 that was signed into law by the state’s governor, Rick Snyder. While union leaders can claim that they are protesting to protect the rights of employees, aren’t right-to-work measures like the bill that was introduced Rand Paul, the only true way to protect employee rights. Only when employees in every state across America have the opportunity to decide for themselves whether or not they want to be part of a union will employee rights truly be protected. Unions, and the Democrats their money supports, will certainly oppose Senator Paul’s legislation, as they have every other right-to-work measure in recent history, but a simple look at job growth in right-to-work states shows that a national right-to-work law would be a significant help to an American economy that has been stagnant at best under Barack Obama.