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What Effect Is Right-To-Work Legislation Having On Construction?

In March 2017, Missouri officially became the 28th state to adopt right-to-work laws and make unions optional. Right-to-work laws state that workers do not have to join labor unions to be able to work on prevailing wage jobs. This was a huge development when Michigan adopted right-to-work laws and the automotive labor unions wound up losing 48,000 members in 2014 alone, despite an increase in the general Michigan workforce by 44,000 workers.

When Indiana adopted right-to-work laws, labor unions got nervous. Especially those unions that make their money through construction jobs. Indiana used to be known as a unionized state, but that all changed when right-to-work laws went into effect. This looks like it could be a continuing trend as 82 percent of all Americans feel that workers should not be forced to pay union dues and join a union just to get a job.

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The Argument For Right-To-Work Laws

Proponents of right-to-work laws say that publicly funded projects are less expensive when wages are held in check by the right kind of legislation. Municipalities can award prevailing wage projects to union shops, but bring in non-union subcontractors to keep down overall costs. The unions maintain that the quality of work from non-union shops is inferior, but project owners realize a cost reduction of almost 20 percent when not forced to rely solely on union workers.

Right-to-work laws give workers a choice on whether or not they want to join a union to take part in larger projects. But unions maintain that allowing non-union workers onto union jobs is only reducing overall wages and making working conditions more dangerous. Part of the problems for unions is that, while they have seen an overall increase in membership, the “free riders” (as non-union workers getting union representation are called) are making it financially impossible for unions to do their jobs and protect workers.

The Union Side Of The Argument

When a worker in a right to work state gets a job on a prevailing wage job that was secured by a labor union, that worker does not have to pay a fee to the union to work on that job. However, the worker would be required to work through the union if they experience a problem on that job. The end result is that non-union workers get the same benefit of union representation as members who pay their dues, but they get that representation at no cost.

Unions maintain that their approach to construction jobs is the best one available. Being part of a union provides:

  • Worker training
  • Safety inspections
  • Job owner accountability
  • A reliable workforce

Unions have even offered to allow non-union workers to pay what is known as an “agency fees” to cover the costs of collective bargaining. These are fees specifically designed to cover only the costs of maintaining the prevailing wage. But right-to-work laws make it illegal for unions to try and demand this fee from non-union workers.

Unions also maintain that worker safety and wages drop considerably in any state that has right-to-work laws. As the unions lose their grip on controlling worker wages, they also claim that wages drop. Right-to-work laws strip unions of their power through membership and put competitive wages in jeopardy.

The Non-Union Perspective

Non-union construction companies maintain that they collectively spend over $1 billion per year on worker training and safety. They also maintain that unions pursue the payment of full union dues from every worker and do not allow for the payment of only agency fees. If a non-union worker pays full union dues, they get the benefit of collective bargaining but they do not partake in union benefits.

Non-union advocate groups also maintain that right to work laws encourage competition and help to raise wages in every state where the laws are in effect. Despite the efforts of the right to work laws, unions did see a one percent rise in membership throughout 2016 and have added 238,000 members since the decade started in 2010. Wages, in every state, have shown a tendency to be on the rise.

The Political Pressure On The Horizon

With more than half of the states on board with the right to work laws, the talk has shifted to making right-to-work a federal mandate. For the past eight years, unions did not have to worry about that prospect because the union-friendly Democratic Party was in power in the White House. But with the GOP taking over the White House and Congress in the recent elections, things could get difficult for unions.

The Republican Party is famous for busting unions using right to work laws. Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker ran for president based on his ability to get right to work laws passed in his state. Throughout his campaign, now president Donald Trump promised he was on the side of the unions. But the GOP knows that it can continue to erode at the main base of support for the Democratic Party if it can make right to work laws a federal level mandate.

What About New York State?

In February 2017, the new Republican Congress introduced a bill that would make right-to-work laws a federal mandate. At the time the bill was introduced, New York State did not have any right-to-work laws. Despite significant attempts by New York State labor unions to gain hold of the workforce, state union membership dropped as a percentage of the entire worker population from 24.7 percent in 2015 to 23.6 percent in 2016.

Construction tools

The growing number of non-union controlled construction projects in New York City has labor union officials concerned for worker safety, and for the long-term viability of the labor unions in general. Recent issues with worker safety have given labor unions an opportunity to claim that non-union work is far too dangerous and that unions are the best way to get work done efficiently, but the labor unions in New York face an uphill battle for their own survival.

Work Laws Becoming Federal Mandates

If right-to-work laws become federal mandates, then there would be a lot of changes in the way construction jobs are bid and built. Unions in right to work states such as Michigan and Indiana continue to operate, but their presence has been weakened. The financial burden placed on labor unions by the right to work laws has forced unions to take a hard stance against the idea of union representation for non-union workers. But the majority of the American population still stands in favor of right-to-work laws.

The federal right-to-work bill was introduced quietly and has not yet been debated on any Congressional floor. Currently, unions in right-to-work states are finding it difficult to survive. While they might see minute increases in membership, their costs are going up because of the need to represent every worker on a prevailing wage job site. If the right-to-work laws do manage to become federal mandates, then that could result in big trouble for the unions in states like New York, where there are no right-to-work laws, but yet the unions are still losing relevance.

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