Right to Work
The euphemism is a rather useful rhetorical tool and one beloved by politicians. Roughly put, a person uses a euphemism by substituting a positive or innocuous term or phrase for one that has a more negative connotation. Metaphorically, I often describe the process of using a euphemism as sprinkling sugar on something unpleasant to make it more palatable. Or, in the words of Mary Poppins, “Just a spoonful of sugar helps the medicine go down in a most delightful way.”
Euphemisms are, of course, widely used outside of politics. For example, in my youth people bought used cars. Now people purchase pre-owned vehicles. As another example, people used to be fired. Now they are down-sized.
Euphemisms are often used in the naming of laws to make them sound better. In many cases, something rather unpleasant is hidden behind the sugar coating of a pleasant sounding (but inaccurate) name. One example of this is the naming of anti-union laws as “right to work” laws. Currently, there are 23 “right to work” states in the United States. The other 27 states have not yet passed such laws, but at least five of them are considering such laws. These laws, not surprisingly, are part of the larger attack on unions, including educators’ unions.
While there are various arguments given in favor of the “right to work” laws, one standard argument in their favor is that the laws should be adopted by a state because doing so will have an economic benefit for that state. As such, a key point of dispute is over the premise that “right to work laws” yield economic benefits.
Interestingly, the premise is both true and false. By this, I do not mean that it is some sort of violation of the usual laws of truth. Rather, the claim is true for some and not true for others.
For employers, “right to work” laws can yield economic benefits, but precisely because these laws inflict economic costs on those doing the work. Darrel Minor, a professor of mathematics at Columbus State Community College, recently completed an analysis of the data regarding “right to work” states and the other states.
One focus of the analysis was the Gross Domestic Product (GDP) of each state. This is a measure of the goods and services produced in the state. Based on the 2009 data, the GDP of “right to work” states was $38,755. For the other states, the GDP was $43, 899. This is a 13.3% difference. Interestingly, this indicates that the “right to work” laws can hurt both the employed and the employers—after all the data indicates that states with “right to work” laws are actually less productive than other states, thus undercutting arguments based on the claim that these laws enhance productivity. However, it is also worth noting that salaries in “right to work” states are 9.4% lower than those in the other states. While this is bad for the workers, it can be advantageous for employers since they can pay less for the same work.
Another focus of the analysis was on poverty rates. Eleven of the fifteen states with the highest poverty rates are “right to work” states. In contrast, nine of the eleven states with the lowest poverty rates are not “right to work” states. In 2008, 14.4% of the population of “right to work” states lived in poverty. In the other states, the number is 12.4%. As Minor notes, if the poverty level of the “right to work” states was extended to all 50 states, this would mean 3,670,000 more people living in poverty. This data would certainly seem to indicate that “right to work” laws contribute to increased poverty.
Minor also found, interestingly enough, that the life expectancy in “right to work” states is lower than in other states, which is certainly a matter of some concern.
If this data is accurate, then there are rather good reasons to be opposed to “right to work” laws, even with their positive sounding designation.
It is, of course, worth noting that there are proponents of “right to work” laws and they point to different statistics, namely those showing higher employment and lower costs of living in states with “right to work laws” relative to other states. This raises the possibility that such laws can be beneficial in some areas while being rather detrimental in other areas, thus making the choice a matter of weighing these various factors. Naturally, the weight given to them will depend considerably on the values of those doing the assessment. So, for example, someone concerned with poverty and life expectancy would tend to regard such laws as more harmful than beneficial. Someone focused on the advantage of lower salaries in attracting businesses would tend to regard such laws as beneficial.
It is also worth pointing out that it is reasonable to be concerned that the alleged effects (positive and negative) of “right to work” laws are not actually caused by the laws but by other factors. It is also worth considering that the laws are actually an effect rather than a cause. For example, a state with higher levels of poverty might pass such laws in the hopes of reducing poverty. It is also worth considering that the laws and their alleged effects are both the result of a third factor. As another example, states with extensive and strong business interests would tend to have higher employment rates and these business interests would tend to support “right to work” laws because of their perceived usefulness in combating the threat of unions.