Whose right to work?


Ohioans voted decisively in 2011 to repeal a state law enacted that year that would have gutted the collective-bargaining rights of public employees. Last week, Republican lawmakers who evidently disdain that history proposed legislation that would make Ohio a “right to work” state.

Their toxic package deserves a prompt and permanent burial, next to the earlier union-busting measure, Senate Bill 5. Then state officials, unions, and business lobbies can consider labor-law reforms that offer a meaningful prospect of improving Ohio’s economy and creating jobs.

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The right-to-work bills would prohibit Ohio unions and employers, in the private and public sectors, from requiring workers to join a union and pay dues as a condition of employment. Nor could they impose “fair share” fees on workers who decline to join a union, to cover the cost of collective bargaining on their behalf.

The bills’ sponsors include one-fourth of the GOP caucus that controls the state House. If the legislation stalls, a companion measure calls for lawmakers to place a right-to-work initiative before voters, although that would require even more votes from House members than passing the bills would.

Despite declining membership over the past quarter-century, unions enroll 604,000 Ohio workers — the seventh highest total among states — and represent 61,000 others, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics.

One of every eight Ohio workers belongs to a union — a share higher than the national rate. And despite assertions that right-to-work laws promote employment, Ohio’s jobless rate remains below the national average.

Nearly half the states — including, most recently, Michigan and Indiana — have right-to-work laws. Supporters say they make states more attractive to employers. But the greater weight of evidence suggests that such laws help depress wages, encourage employers not to offer health and retirement benefits, deny rather than promote workers’ rights, and aggravate income inequality.

Allowing workers to become free riders who need not pay for the wages, benefits, and workplace standards that union representation brings them will discourage union membership. That will tilt the labor-management dynamic in favor of employers, and threaten to roll back the gains achieved for workers through collective bargaining.

Gov. John Kasich, the prime mover behind the labor law that voters repudiated two years ago, is keeping his distance from the right-to-work measures. So is state House Speaker William Batchelder. Senate President Keith Faber insists his GOP-majority chamber’s “ambitious agenda” does not include a right-to-work package and claims lawmakers wouldn’t support it. He says the debate serves no other purpose than “to generate a bunch of breathless fund-raising appeals from the Ohio Democratic Party.”

That’s reassuring, but not entirely so. For nearly two years, Michigan’s Republican governor, Rick Snyder, said a right-to-work law was “not on my agenda.” But when the GOP-controlled Legislature rammed through such a measure in one day during last December’s lame-duck session, Mr. Snyder promptly signed it.

Ohio labor law needs updating to deal with such drawbacks as rigid seniority rules that are detrimental to younger employeess. But the reform process can’t be conducted with a chain saw.

Ohio’s legislature, like Michigan’s, has shown it is capable of rousing itself from its customary torpor and acting abruptly when the perceived political payoff is high enough. So opponents of right-to-work should not be lulled into complacency and relax their vigilance.

At the same time, lawmakers would represent all Ohioans better by considering changes in labor law that have a higher aim than merely punishing unions.