One of the great things about Midwesterners is that we stick together. Ohioans not only go out of our way to help each other, but we also are quick to assist our neighbors. We tend to see our brothers and sisters in other Midwest states as facing many of the same challenges and occupying the same boat.
We opposed the North American Free Trade Agreement together. We have worked to clean up the Great Lakes together. And we all benefited from President Obama’s rescue of the U.S. auto industry.
Recently, though, Michigan, Indiana, and Wisconsin all have enacted “right to work” legislation that makes it illegal for employers and workers to agree to a contract that requires everyone who benefits from union representation to pay for that representation. As a result, many workers who do not have to pay union dues will not.
Some of the same people who wanted to deprive our public employees of their rights to bargain collectively — until voters defeated that effort — now call for Ohio to become a right-to-work state. The true purpose of right-to-work is to reduce unions’ funding and weaken their influence. That is a terrible mistake.
Unions have fought for safer working conditions, higher wages, and health care and retirement benefits. Union advocacy, as it raises standards and benefits, helps all working families. When unions do well, so does the middle class.
Because of attacks on organized labor, the rate of union membership has decreased from about 35 percent of American workers in the late 1940s to 12 percent today. As that rate has declined, the middle-class share of national income also has fallen.
Right-to-work laws hurt all workers, not just union members. According to the Center for American Progress, average workers in right-to-work states — whether or not they belong to unions — earn $1,500 less a year than workers in other states. They also are much less likely to get health insurance and pension benefits.
Right-to-work laws physically harm workers: The rate of construction-industry deaths is 34 percent higher in right-to-work states than elsewhere, largely because unions in those states are not strong enough to fight for safer workplaces.
And despite the hype, right-to-work laws do not help to create or attract jobs, especially the high-paying jobs that states want. Look at Oklahoma, which adopted its right-to-work law in 2001.
In the decade before the law took effect, the Economic Policy Institute reports, Oklahoma’s manufacturing employment rose. After its passage, though, the number of manufacturing jobs in Oklahoma fell from 171,000 in 2001 to 123,000 in 2010.
Oklahoma has attracted 600 companies over the past two decades, including Boeing, which shifted 550 jobs from California. This was not the result of the right-to-work law, but rather a much more effective economic incentive: cash.
In the early 1990s, Oklahoma began attracting businesses by rebating 5 percent of their payroll costs. In 2009, it started offering 10-percent rebates to companies that brought high-paying jobs to the state.
The Economic Policy Institute notes that economic-development officials in Oklahoma don’t even mention right-to-work, the supposed employer magnet, in their marketing materials. Their message instead focuses on the state’s central location, low business costs, and highly skilled work force.
Right to-work legislation is a bad idea. If Michigan, Indiana, and Wisconsin want to go down that road, that’s their prerogative. But Ohio doesn’t need to follow their example. If our neighbors jump off the Veterans’ Glass City Skyway, that doesn’t mean we should too.
We need to start calling right-to-work what it really is: the right to work for less.
Joe McNamara is president of Toledo City Council.