As the debate over recent labor law changes in Michigan rages, so too does misinformation over the “right-to-work” law signed Tuesday by Gov. Rick Snyder.

The misunderstanding comes from both the left and the right, and is at least partially due to the complexity of the issue, with which many Americans (most of whom aren’t union members) are unfamiliar.

To be clear: Right-to-work laws outlaw contracts between employers and unions that make union fees or union membership mandatory for employees. As a result, some employees who are represented by unions do not pay fees to support the union and its efforts on behalf of members. In states without right-to-work laws, many contracts state that employees who do not want to be members of the union still must pay "agency fees" that fay for the cost of collective bargaining that the union undertakes on their behalf.

The following are five commonly held beliefs about right to work that are either untrue or unproven.

1. Right to work is a small government/free market policy. Au contraire. In fact, many libertarians oppose right to work because it infringes on the rights of two private-sector parties to negotiate a contract. (Granted, free market purists also oppose existing federal laws that require employers to recognize and bargain with unions)

Whether employees will be required to join the union or pay union fees is one of the many subjects that employers typically negotiate with unions, along with pay, benefits and work rules. As progressive blogger Matt Yglesias points out, if the government can bar employers from requiring union fees , it could also bar employers from giving pay raises. (In fact, there are probably a number of businesses that would be delighted to inform their employees that pay raises are legally off the table during contract negotiations!)

2. Unions can’t survive or bargain in right-to-work states. While right-to-work laws are certainly intended to weaken unions, they do not always succeed in doing so. The right to collectively bargain is protected by federal law, and labor leaders in right-to-work states simply must make sure the rank-and-file is committed to supporting the union through voluntary dues.

Nevada, for instance, is a right-to-work state with a unionization rate on par with the national average, while Alabama and Montana (also right-to-work) have rates just below it.

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3. Right to work is the only way to prevent mandatory union dues. Again, mandatory union fees (typically referred to as a “union security clause”) are the subject of negotiation between the union and the employer.

“Open shops,” in which employees are represented by a union but are not required to join or pay dues, exist everywhere. Last year, for instance, union workers at Manitowoc Crane went on strike when management refused to include a union security clause in the contract. Ultimately, management won and the employees accepted an open shop.

Milwaukee Journal Sentinel reporters, who are represented by the Newspaper Guild, also work under an open shop contract.

4. Right to work “liberates” workers from forced unionism. Only in the most narrow sense. Workers who do not pay dues or join the union are still represented by the union and cannot negotiate their own contracts with management.

5. Right to work has been proven to help/hurt the economy. Like many economic issues, right to work is endlessly debated, with partisans cherry-picking various data in attempts to prove that the policy either bolsters or hinders economic growth. Studies that try to isolate right to work from the myriad of other cultural, political, geographic and economic factors that affect growth have yielded conflicting results.

For instance, it is hard to argue that Mississippi is the poorest state in the country simply because of its right-to-work law, just as it is hard to argue that West Virginia — the second-poorest state — is languishing simply because it lacks one.

Correction: As several people on social media have pointed out, "agency fees" or "fair share" are the correct terms for the fee that is often required of employees by a union security clause. Employees who do not want to support all of the union's activities can pay this smaller fee, which only goes towards the legal and administrative costs the union undertakes to represent the employees.


Jack Craver is the Capital Times political reporter, focusing on elections, candidates and campaign finance.