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In the United States, every state has different laws regulating the strength of unions. About half of states have anti-union laws – somewhat deceptively called “Right to Work” (RTW) laws – that make union membership and the payment of union dues for workers optional and limit other union organizing. In contrast, pro-union states mandate workers join unions at workplaces with existing unions and pay dues. Supporters of these RTW laws argue that workers should not be obligated to join a union at their workplace or pay dues. Opponents argue all workers at unionized workplaces should have to join the union because they benefit from bargaining agreements, including pay, benefits, and working conditions. 

Tom VanHeuvelen compared these RTW laws in anti-union states and pro-union states using a nationally recognized data set of 5,000 American families and 18,000 individuals to see if there were different economic outcomes for workers. His results suggest that pro-union policies are good for workers whether they are in unions or not. Specifically, VanHeuvelen found that states with RTW laws had lower average pay (5-12% less), lower union premiums (benefits, working conditions, promotion policies, etc.), and more pay inequality between employees. In other words, these anti-union states had poorer economic outcomes for workers than pro-union states.

VanHeuvelen suggests that anti-union laws have lasting impacts on the overall economy and political landscape of states. To support his theory, VanHeuvelen looked at workers who travel between states for work, e.g. someone who lives on the border of two states: residing in a pro-union state, but working in the neighboring anti-union state. This analysis revealed a sharp decrease in average pay and pay equality in anti-union states — even when workers lived in a pro-union state but worked in an anti-union state. 

Broadly speaking, this research suggests that so-called ‘Right To Work’ laws not only lead to a weaker union presence but also that workers in RTW states are actually somewhat worse off than those in ‘pro-union’ states. For those who were optimistic about RTW laws benefiting workers, it might be time to rethink policies for both unions and workers.