Policy & Progress article: The Right to (Be Underpaid for Your) Work in North Carolina

By Sabine Schoenbach, Policy Analyst for the NC Justice Center’s Worker’s Rights Project

It’s possible that in November 2014, North Carolina voters will once again be asked to amend the state’s constitution with a law that already exists. This time, the ballot may ask voters to approve a “Right to Work” (RTW) constitutional amendment.

RTW laws have little to do with the right to a job. Rather, they are all about undermining the effectiveness of unions. These laws allow a worker to benefit from a union contract but choose not to be a member of the union and therefore not pay his share toward the union’s costs.

North Carolina is already a RTW state and has been for more than half a century. It can be easy to overlook this amendment proposal as harmless or simply a waste of taxpayer money to duplicate what already exists. However, enshrining RTW law into the state constitution says something significant about how our state lawmakers think about economic policy and job creation.

A Job-Creation Strategy that Doesn’t Create Jobs

We can all agree that, with unemployment still well above the national average, North Carolina needs jobs. But research clearly shows that RTW laws do not spur job growth.
The Economic Policy Institute conducted a state-by-state analysis, controlling for local variants such as industry trends and educational attainment, and found that RTW laws had no impact on job growth in the states that have them.

North Carolina already has the dubious distinction of being the least unionized state in the country. Our RTW laws have contributed to diluting union bargaining strength by making it more difficult for unions to financially sustain themselves.

So adding anti-union legislation in our constitution will not help struggling families or limping local economies. In fact, it will hurt both. Research has shown that all workers – union and non-union – in RTW states face a wage penalty. Whether unionized or not, the average worker in a RTW state earns about $1500 less per year than a similar worker in a free-bargaining state. Lower wages, in turn, translate into reduced consumer demand and fewer funds flowing into local economies. If union membership in North Carolina increased by 10 percentage points, the state would see an estimated $2.8 billion gain in middle-class income.

There are responsible ways to encourage job growth in North Carolina and ensure that the jobs we hope to attract are quality, family-supporting jobs. An RTW constitutional amendment isn’t one of them.

An Opportunity to Learn from History

North Carolina was one of the first states to enact RTW laws after the passage of the 1947 Taft-Hartley amendments to the National Labor Relations Act of 1935. To learn more about the historical and political context in which Right to Work laws were pushed forward in the 1940s, and to take the opportunity to learn from this history, we had a conversation with David Zonderman, who teaches American labor history at NC State University.

Can you briefly describe the national historical and political context leading up to Taft Hartley?

During the first half of the 1940s, during the war, the economy is doing well and unemployment is close to 2 percent. During this time, the national labor movement grew dramatically. Of course, the thriving economy did not last after the war. In 1946, you see an enormous strike wave spread across the country driven by unions pressing for wages to catch up with the previous wartime inflation rates and corporate profits.

The fall of 1946 is also a congressional election year, and the Republicans make enormous gains in the House and the Senate. This occurred for a host of reasons, but one was that they ran on a platform of needing to reign in “Big Labor.” The Taft-Hartley Act is exactly that – an effort to reign in organized labor and worker solidarity.

What was the context in North Carolina and what explains the long-standing hostility to unions in the state?

The short version of the long answer is that we became the state with the lowest unionization rate because of economics, culture, and race. In the 1940s, and up until the 1960s and 1970s, North Carolina was a predominantly agricultural state. Most of our industry was dominated by textiles, tobacco and furniture—industries conscious of keeping production up and wages down. The textile industry, especially, always fought very hard to keep unions out. Their profit margins were low and the wages they paid were low, which was also how they sought to attract the Northern textile industry.

And until recently, we were predominantly a rural state. Culturally, unions were seen as something foreign, Yankee, or even communist. And the third piece of this context is race, which becomes particularly powerful right after World War II. The CIO [Congress of Industrial Organizations, a federation of unions] was launching what they called “Operation Dixie,” which was a huge effort to organize the South, mainly in the textile industry, but in other industries as well. Operation Dixie threatened segregation because many CIO unions were on record as saying that they would strive to organize both black and white workers. The effort won some victories, for example in the tobacco warehouses in Rocky Mount, but the major efforts were turned back.

What are some of the lessons we can take away from this political and historical context?

It’s not a coincidence that right-to-work laws were passed in the high tide of union development in this country. In the mid-1950s, union rates peaked at about 35 percent of the non-farm workforce. We are now down to a little under 12 percent. These laws were intended to roll back the tide of worker organization, and I would argue that particularly recently, it hasn’t helped our economy at all. Our national economy was the most prosperous during the 25 years following WWII. There are many reasons that explain the health of the economy, but two reasons are that we had a very progressive tax system and a very strong labor movement. During this time, we were incredibly prosperous as a nation and had a strong middle class. There just isn’t any hard evidence that right-to-work laws, which keep unionization rates low, are good for the economy.

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