Debate Club

Right-to-Work Laws Harm the Middle Class


States should not pass so-called "right-to-work" laws because they are a body blow to the middle class and undermine a state's economy. Unions are essential for building a strong middle class, yet right-to-work laws weaken unions by making them provide services without being paid for them—forcing certain workers to pay the costs of union representation for all workers.

And by harming the middle class, these laws hurt the economy because a strong middle class leads to additional business investment, greater entrepreneurship, more growth-enhancing public policy, and higher levels of trust that facilitate business transactions.

The evidence that 'right-to-work' laws harm the middle class is crystal clear:

[See a collection of political cartoons on the economy.]

The average worker—unionized or not—working in a right-to-work state earns approximately $1,500 less per year than a similar worker in a state without such a law, according to a study by the Economic Policy Institute. And that worker is much less likely to receive health and pension benefits. If benefits coverage in non-right-to-work states were lowered to the levels of states with these laws, 2 million fewer workers would receive health insurance and 3.8 million fewer workers would receive pensions nationwide.

The five states with the lowest union membership rates—North Carolina, South Carolina, Georgia, Arkansas, and Louisiana—are right-to-work states and they all have a relatively weak middle classes, with the share of total state income going to the middle 60 percent of households below the national average, according to Census figures.

Over the past several decades, unions have weakened and the middle class has been hollowed out—a trend that would significantly worsen if more states pass right-to-work laws. As Census data indicate, the middle 60 percent of the nation's households received 53.2 percent of the nation's income in 1968, when unions represented nearly 30 percent of workers. In 2011, the middle class received only 45.7 percent of the nation's income—the lowest share on record—as union rates dropped below 12 percent.

[Check out political cartoons about healthcare.]

Moreover, right-to-work does not reduce unemployment. Indeed, Nevada—a right-to-work state—has the highest unemployment rate in the country. Not surprisingly researchers find that right-to-work has "no significant positive impact whatsoever on employment."

In short, these laws divide societies into rich and poor. The laws not only weaken workers in unions, but hurt all workers, the middle class, and local economies in general.

David Madland

About David Madland Director of the American Worker Project at the Center for American Progress


Other Arguments

27 Pts
Unions Hinder Economic Growth and the Free Market

Yes – Unions Hinder Economic Growth and the Free Market

Arthur Brooks President of the American Enterprise Institute

19 Pts
Right-to-Work Laws Put Employees in the Driver's Seat

Yes – Right-to-Work Laws Put Employees in the Driver's Seat

James Sherk Senior Policy Analyst at the Heritage Foundation.

-8 Pts
Cutting Wages and Benefits Only Harms the Economy

No – Cutting Wages and Benefits Only Harms the Economy

Gordon Lafer Associate Professor at University of Oregon

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