So-called “right-to-work” laws have been hotly contested for three-quarters of a century. These laws allow for workers in unionized workplaces to enjoy the benefits of unionization without having to contribute to the costs of negotiating and enforcing those benefits. Proponents claim that right-to-work laws provide workers with the freedom of whether or not to join a union, describing them as tools that open up economic dynamism, employment, and growth. By contrast, opponents charge that right-to-work laws are antilabor pieces of legislation designed to undercut union power and bargaining positions, ultimately reducing the economic wellbeing of ordinary citizens.

Even in the current era of historically low union membership, right-to-work laws continue to motivate significant local and national political action. One of the first pieces of legislation passed by Michigan Democrats after winning back the state legislature in November 2022 was the repeal of its 2012 right-to-work law. Missouri voters blocked the state legislature’s right-to-work bill in 2018, while the Supreme Court’s 2018 ruling in Janus v. AFSCME has been described as functionally applying right-to-work status to the entire public sector across the nation.

I became interested in right-to-work laws while living in Champaign, Illinois in the mid 2010s. During this time, some municipalities in Illinois, such as Lincolnshire, attempted to pass locally defined right-to-work laws. Prior to Missouri’s successful voter repeal, it looked like Illinois would be surrounded by right-to-work states after a flurry of political entrepreneurship resulted in a new wave of right-to-work laws passed in former union strongholds in the Midwest, such as Wisconsin, Indiana, and Michigan. And the Janus Supreme Court case originated in Illinois, initially through the efforts of then-Governor Bruce Rauner, who had strong antilabor views. It seemed obvious that the political actors surrounding these policy debates saw right-to-work as a core piece of labor legislation, one that individuals were willing to invest significant time, energy, and money into. As I read histories of political movements organized around right-to-work laws, I was struck by the decades-long investments of human and financial capital organizations and individuals made to either pass or block right-to-work laws. These laws must be consequential in some significant way if they could motivate such passionate political action over multiple decades.

It is rare for a policy to motivate such longstanding political contestation without any meaningful empirical payoff.  So perhaps it is surprising to learn that, despite motivating fierce political debates on the ground since the 1940s, academic research has been largely unsettled on how right-to-work affects local economic outcomes, or whether these laws do anything at all. Although some find that right-to-work laws influence worker earnings in some times or places in one direction or another, the preponderance of academic evidence suggests negligible impact. This was a puzzle that motivated me to reexamine the economic consequences of right-to-work laws.

To do so, I turned to what is widely considered to be the gold standard dataset for tracking economic outcomes among individuals over a long period of time, the Panel Study of Income Dynamics. This dataset follows individuals from one year to the next, doing so from 1968 to 2019, allowing for an assessment of how the trajectory of an individual’s earnings during their career changes when a state they reside in passes a right-to-work law.

In the first set of results, I found that after the passage of a right-to-work law, individuals experienced a substantial decline in their wages, about 5%. These results were most concentrated among those who were union members. Additionally, wage inequality increased substantially following right-to-work passage, again with inequality among union members hit the hardest.

One of the most important facts of union power is its ability to influence earnings among certain kinds of workers. Union membership is especially beneficial for workers who earn low and middle wages. When I focused on these workers, I found that they experienced the disproportionate brunt of right-to-work effects. In fact, the union premium to these more marginalized workers was functionally halved after right-to-work passage.

However, right-to-work does not just have consequences for the workers in a state in and around the time of passage. A reading of the history of this policy shows long-run investments into the outcome of policy battles surrounding this law. Advocates describe them as tools to “defang and defund” local political rivals. In the second part of the analyses, I turned attention to the durable changes to the local labor market institutional context in a state after right-to-work passage. I found a variety of substantial changes to a state’s political economy after right-to-work passage: state policies, politicians, and publics became more right-leaning, the state’s business friendly policy environment increased, union membership declined, manufacturing increased and public sector employment decreased, and the total share of income going to labor, and to unionized labor, declined.

I therefore examined a novel group of workers who have mostly been ignored in previous studies of right-to-work: those who move across right-to-work state contexts (e.g. from California to Iowa). I compared their earnings changes to other workes who moved inside, or outside, right-to-work contexts (e.g. from California to Oregon, or from Iowa to Alabama). I found that, much like those who experienced right-to-work change within states, folks who move into right-to-work states experience lower wages and higher inequality (and vice versa for those moving out of right-to-work states). These changes contrasted with the the mostly positive earnings changes found among those moving within right-to-work, or non-right-to-work contexts. However, these unique experiences for movers across right-to-work contexts were not due to right-to-work laws themselves. Results were fully explained by the downstream changes to the broader political, economic, and institutional landscape described above. Right-to-work laws fundamentally change the political-institutional environments in states, which then subsequently affect the economic fortunes of Americans moving across state lines.

I think that these findings reveal the insights of the political advocates fighting for, or against, right-to-work laws, and help explain the counterintuitive nonexistent findings among previous academic research. Right-to-work laws are not just consequential for those immediately surrounding the time of policy change. Academic research has benefited from thinking tightly about policy changes as “treatments,” akin to studying changes in a person’s headache depending on whether they were randomly given aspirin or a placebo sugar pill. Yet this narrow focus has led much academic research to ignore the broader institutional work that these laws accomplish – changing the balance of power between political parties, allowing for new policy bundles to be enacted, and changing the perceived realm of the reasonable and possible for new labor market entrants.

These broader changes, which I describe as the “institutionalization” of a new set of norms, practices, cultures, and logics, have a substantial influence on economic outcomes, allowing for higher inequality, lower typical pay, and less economic protection for middle and lower paid workers. When labor’s power is reduced, workplaces become more fragmented, the political and social primacy of employers and businesses are privileged and reinforced by a constellation of policies, and local governments become more aligned with business rather than labor interests, individual expectations of what is normal can, and often do, change. The ideas to request higher pay, to push back against management, or to lobby local political leaders to support more marginal and vulnerable workers might all come to seem as more unreasonable. These longer-term influences of right-to-work laws help explain the continued political action surrounding these laws as well as their longer-term effects on the economy.

Tom VanHeuvelen is an Associate Professor of Sociology at the University of Minnesota. His research has appeared in the American Sociological Review, American Journal of Sociology, Social Forces, and other outlets.

This post is based on Tom VanHeuvelen, “The Right to Work and American Inequality.” American Sociological Review, Vol. 88(5) 810–843 (October 2023), https://doi.org/10.1177/00031224231197630

Image: “Electrical Workers Standing Strong 2” by Joe Brusky, via Flickr, https://flic.kr/p/raYwWw