This Monday, September 1st, our nation celebrates the contributions of the American labor movement and, more broadly, the social and economic achievements of all workers. In the midst of the parades, end-of-summer sales, anticipation of football, and excitement (or dread) about the new school year, it’s worth pausing to reflect on the intrinsic value of labor in our lives.
Work gives us a sense of meaning and purpose. For most people, it’s the vehicle through which we provide for ourselves and our families, whether by earning money outside the home or raising children inside the home. Work also provides a natural rhythm and structure to our days and necessitates growth in virtues like hard work, discipline, and self-sacrifice. In short, work is instrumental to human flourishing.
For all of these reasons, we proudly celebrate labor this weekend. We also affirm the right of an employee to bargain with his employer, which is most often associated with the right to form and join unions. The right to unionize, rooted in the natural right to freedom of association, must continue to be protected.
It is important to recognize, however, that freedom of association includes the freedom not to associate. Unfortunately, the current laws of Ohio do not protect workers from being forced to join unions as a condition of employment. As a matter of principle, this needs to change. As a matter of policy, the need for workplace freedom legislation is equally great.
To be sure, there’s certainly no small amount of controversy surrounding workplace freedom laws, often referred to as Right to Work. But unlike many other controversial policy topics, the objectives of each side of the debate aren’t diametrically opposed to one another. At the end of the day, it’s about what is best for workers, all workers, the common good – or at least, it should be.
Despite what some contend, Right to Work laws do not prevent unions from collectively bargaining or prevent workers from joining. Right to Work simply empowers workers with a choice. And with that choice comes leverage, as union leaders are held to greater accountability. If securing the right to control one’s own labor is one of the primary goals of the labor movement, increased leverage for individual workers should be something all parties embrace.
Of course, there are those who argue that prohibiting compulsory membership weakens unions. But this only happens when workers decide that joining would not benefit them. If workers believe their interests are better represented elsewhere, why not let nature take its course? And the experience of Right to Work states suggests that course may, in fact, lead to greater prosperity for all workers.
According to a 2013 study from the Tax Foundation, eight of the top ten states that saw increases in personal income from migration between 2000 and 2010 were Right to Work states. (Ohio was ranked 46th, with $14.7 billion leaving the state during this period.) A separate study from the National Institute for Labor Relations Research found that from 2001-2011 employment rose 2.4% in Right to Work states while it fell 3.4 percent in non-Right to Work states. Meanwhile, wages increased 12.5 percent in Right to Work states compared with only 3.1 percent in non-Right to Work states.
The facts certainly speak for themselves. And with neighboring Michigan and Indiana adopting Right to Work legislation in 2012, Ohio workers and businesses face stiffer competition than ever.
As we celebrate Labor Day this weekend and the General Assembly prepares to get back to work, it’s only fitting that we take concrete action to affirm Ohio workers’ right to unionize and their freedom to abstain.
Brendan Shea is a guest columnist for Civitas Media. Brendan can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.