Gov. John Kitzhaber preached a message to a Labor Day picnic aimed to make unions cheer. The speech was so unabashed in its support for unions that afterward Oregon AFL-CIO President Tom Chamberlain told the crowd: “Damn governor, you sounded like the president of the AFL-CIO,” The Oregonian reported.
A portion of Kitzhaber’s speech was dedicated to a proposed ballot measure that would permit government workers to opt out of paying union dues. Such policies are called right-to-work laws. About half the states have them.
“A right-to-work state means you have a right to work for less without a voice in the workplace,” Kitzhaber said, according to The Oregonian. “A right-to-work state means you have a right to be exploited and ripped off and work at unsafe jobs and low wages and no benefits.”
In short, pass right-to-work laws and abracadabra, you get something close to workplace ruin.
Of course, a good political speech does not dawdle in detail nor is it layered with qualifiers. It should invigorate and inspire. Just the same, Kitzhaber indulged in some outsized mythologizing.
It’s certainly true that passage of such a ballot measure would not be good for unions. If fewer people pay dues, a union is going to have less money to represent its interests. Those workers who don’t pay dues will also get all the benefits of having union representation without the cost.
The consensus on the effects of right-to-work laws pretty much breaks down after that point.
We haven’t seen the study that showed workers in right-to-work states are “exploited and ripped off and work at unsafe jobs and low wages and no benefits.”
We did find studies, though, that purport to show that right-to-work states attract companies. And, indeed, there are also studies that purport to show that the benefits tilt more toward owners and less toward workers.
But all the studies are built on the same rickety foundation. They face the problem of disentangling the effects of right-to-work laws from everything else that is going on.
The fundamental question remains: Should government employees be required to pay dues if they don’t join the union?
What if a worker doesn’t like the representation? What if a worker agrees with Kitzhaber and disagrees with his union that more change is needed in Oregon’s state employee retirement system?
We know unions have no great fondness for pay for performance. But we believe unions should only get the dues that they are able to convince workers they deserve.