The Supreme Court will soon take up a case that could impose a de facto right-to-work rule across the public sector, eliminating public employee unions’ ability to require fees from nonmembers and, labor leaders say, threatening the unions’ survival.
Labor officials often complain that right-to-work rules create a free-rider problem, because employees in a unionized shop can enjoy the benefits of a union contract without contributing any share of the fees associated with negotiating and administering that contract. They worry that the Supreme Court’s coming decision in the case Friedrichs v. California Teachers Association could be a death knell for organized labor by making it possible for more workers to opt out of paying union dues.
The experience of 25 states where right-to-work laws are already on the books — particularly Michigan — shows that their fears may be well-founded. Studies show that right-to-work laws are associated with declining union membership rates over the long term, suggesting that some workers do indeed opt out.
A 2013 policy brief from researchers at the University of Illinois found that right-to-work laws are associated with a drop in probability — ranging from 1.5 percent to 9.7 percent — that any given worker is a union member.
Union membership rates have been declining for decades, but that decline has accelerated when right-to-work rules have been passed. In Michigan, where such laws took effect in 2013, the change was dramatic. The percentage of workers in a union dropped from 16.3 percent to 14.5 percent between 2013 and 2014, according to data pulled from the Census General Population Survey. In that same period, nationwide union membership declined slightly from 11.3 to 11.1 percent.
In the dozen years before the law was passed — from 2001 to 2013 — union membership in Michigan dropped 4 percentage points, from 20.3 to 16.3 percent.
The accelerated decline associated with right-to-work rules will be concentrated among government employees if the Supreme Court rules against the California Teachers Association. That would be a significant blow to organized labor, undermining one of its last remaining strongholds. More than one-third of public-sector workers are unionized, compared to just 6.6 percent of private employees.