Yes, Virginia, There are Unions in this State

In 2005, the state of Virginia had 165,000 members of labor unions, and an additional 46,000 workers who were covered by unions. That’s some 6.2% of the work force represented by organized labor.

Of course, if some people had their way, that number would be zero–Virginia’s “right to work” laws are an article of faith among the state’s political elite, including Gov. Tim Kaine. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, only six states nationwide have a lower proportion of workers represented by a union: Arkansas, Georgia, Idaho, the Carolinas, and Utah.

The average (unweighted) median income in those six states in 2004 totaled $41,437. Average median income in the eight states (excluding Hawaii and Alaska) with the highest proportion of workers covered by unions was $48, 308. Those states include New York, Washington, New Jersey, Michigan, California, and Illinois.

But Virginia, like Utah, stands out as a state with a low unionization rate but also median income well-above average. But this is in some respects a misleading picture: Virginia’s high median income ($53,275) is largely a by product of the very high levels of prosperity in Northern Virginia: the average (unweighted) median income in NoVa’s six counties is some $76,101. That prosperity in turn is a direct result of proximity to the federal government.

All this is by way of noting that the AFL-CIO’s James Leaman is on firm ground when he claims there is general correspondence between unionization and prosperity, as he does in an editorial in Saturday’s RTD. Leaman also does a nice job laying out a standard liberal-labor reform agenda; it’s a welcome sight to see organized labor get a chance to speak for itself in the RTD.

A key point Leaman makes is the hostility and harassment workers who wish to organize unions face in the current climate. Indeed, a study released this week by the Center for Economic Policy Research suggests that pro-union organizers and activists run nearly a 20% risk of being illegally fired over the course of an organizing campaign.

Published in: on January 6, 2007 at 5:01 pm  Comments (12)  

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  1. Your comment regarding the Commonwealth’s Right to Work law demonstrates ignorance, or prevarication. Right to Work laws have nothing to do with voluntary unionization; they merely prevent unions and employers from forcing employees to pay union dues. Anyone who wants to join a union remains free to do so, without coercion. Virginia remains low in unionization because unions lack the power to force employees to pay union dues, and because Virginia’s workers don’t choose to join them.

    As for your “study,” CEPR is a notoriously far-Left organization funded by — surprise! — labor unions, and can be expected to produce pro-union “studies.” And, of course, the “study” to which you refer ignores the higher cost of living (including higher taxation) in states in which politicians are bought and paid for with forced dues.

    Finally, as for the misnomered “Employee Free Choice Act,” this is a typical far-Left response to losing elections, since it would invite fraud in the collection of union cards, and prevent workers from exercising their choice in a secret-ballot election.

  2. It’s not ignorance or prevarication to suggest that Virginia’s Right to Work law is connected to its low unionization rate, as the post implied. In fact, you said exactly the same thing yourself in your response!

    Whether Right to Work laws are fair or just is a separate question, one that you obviously have a vested personal interest in. That’s fine. I disagree with your position, however, (and will explain why without calling you a “prevaricator.”)

    Right to Work laws do inhibit what you call “voluntary unionization” by generating a free-rider problem. That is, they make it possible for some people to enjoy the benefits of unionization without having to contribute themselves. This may mean, for instance, that those who do join the union have to pay higher dues than they would otherwise–making unions less attractive. The effect–and indeed, the intent–is to weaken unions as institutions.

    As to the CEPR, I don’t care whether it’s “notoriously far-left” or not–the issue is the quality of their research. Attack the argument of the person, not the person of the argument. The CEPR paper is based on official NLRB data–can you find some flaw in the use of their evidence? Or is it that you out-of-hand dismiss analyses by people you don’t like, because you don’t like them?

    Few if any independent observers would deny that the climate for organizing unions has become markedly more hostile over the past 25 years or so, or that it is much more difficult to successfully organize unions here than most other advanced industrialized nations.

    Finally, it is wildly implausible to suppose that America (and Virginia’s) rate of unionization is low just because workers “choose” not to be in unions. Richard Freeman and Joel Rogers’ book “What do Workers Want?”, based on detailed surveys with workers, found that 44% of American workers would want a union if management did not attempt to block unionization, and 32% wanted a union even if management was opposed. That figure is over twice as high as America’s actual rate of unionization. Notably, some 90% of workers in the survey wanted some form of independent employee organization in their workplace.

  3. Young’s main argument against our research is that Center for Economic and Policy Research ( receives union funding and therefore our research is inherently suspect. As our web page indicates, over 80 percent of our funding is from a range of national foundations including Ford, Rockefeller, the Open Society Institute, and others. We have in seven years of existence occasionally received small sums of money to support specific research projects from
    unions –not this one; together, these funds represent only a percent or two of our total funding. By contrast, we receive far more funding from wealthy individuals who made their wealth through their entrepreneurial activities.

    As for me personally, I have been at CEPR a little less than
    two years (Ben a little over one year) and during that time, to my knowledge, CEPR has not received any financial support from unions at all. (The International Federation of Professional and Technical Engineers, Local 70, represents CEPR staff, including Ben and me.)

    Young himself fails to disclose that he works for the virulently anti-union National Right to Work Legal Defense Foundation, which has a large staff of lawyers whose economic livelihood depends on suing unions. The organization also receives substantial financial support from a large and secretive list of donors. Anyone interested in finding
    out more about Young and his organization should consult the National Right to Work Legal Defense Foundation site:

    as well as the pro-union American Rights at Work site:

    In any event, my own view is that people reading the study –and any criticisms of it– should evaluate the findings based on the arguments and the evidence presented.

    As for Young’s specific arguments against the study, he mentions only that the report “…ignores the higher cost of living (including higher taxation) in states which politicians are bought and paid for with union dues.”

    The comment makes a strong case for the idea that Young has not even read the executive summary of the report, let alone the full study, which has absolutely nothing to do with differences across states in unionization rates, labor law, taxation, or standards of living.

    Our report simply documents a steep rise since 2000 in the probability that pro-union workers attempting to organize unions at their workplace will be illegally fired as a result of their legally protected activities. Our analysis uses publicly available data from National Labor Relations Board proceedings and a methodology developed and published by University of Chicago economist Robert LaLonde and
    University of Chicago law professor Bernard Meltzer back in 1991.

  4. $41,000 in Virginia isn’t the same as $41,000 in New York.

    And if unions would moderate the Che inspired hyperbole, stop defending obviously incompetent employees and quit forcing it’s members to support political causes they disagree with, they might get a few more supporters.

    And then I’ll just fire them and hire illegals. And if anyone questions me, I’ll call them a bigot!

  5. My field of expertise is not in economics (although I did get the highest grade in the class…a little chest thump there) yet I think my own personal experiences with Union vs. Right-to-Work are, in some small way, pertinent to the conversation here.

    1. I was not a raised in a pro-Labor Union family, so previously I had no great love for them. But one thing I have noticed, from a consumer’s side, is this: Retail stores that are unionized (e.g. Giant supermarkets in No. VA and MD.) give unparalleled customer service while not charging exorbitant prices.

    I haven’t had comparably good experiences with the non-unionized grocery stores of the Richmond area. Ukrop’s the customer service is ok…7 on a scale of 10 perhaps…but they are far from affordable.

    2. Right-to-Work also = Right-to-Fire Without Reason. This isn’t stated very often. I guess Right-to-Work has a better ring to it, or something. A little smoke ‘n’ mirrors with semantics.

  6. Ford, Rockefeller, Open Society Institute…? OSI, isn’t that one of George Soros’s toys? All notoriously left wing and agenda oriented organizations. Thats fine, but please don’t insult my intelligence by telling me that their research isn’t tailored to buttress a predetermined conclusion.

    I convened a round table discussion on this matter last night. We are all working class untermenchen and, in between samplings of products produced locally at the Legend Brewery, we came to some conclusions, which are…

    unions, when given power, will abuse it faster than the companies they are supposedly keeping an eye on.

    Considering that gov’t (local and Federal) is the largest single employer in Va, and as far as I know, they are all unionized, there’s something fishy about that 6% number.

    The mexican chicks across the street are hot.

    Of the union guys we know, none of us would hire any of them to cut our grass.

    There is now more “diversity” in Lakeside than in the Fan.

    Virginia IS a horrible place to work therefore, we agree that people should stop moving here from the lands of the pasty wax people (up north).

    Legends Brown Ale is the best.

    Poindexter intellectuals need to step back and look at the big picture every once in a while.

    3 brown ales puts me on my butt.

    Theses findings have been vigorously debated and while not totally unanimous, (Legends IPA is also very tasty and the stupidity of NASCAR is still being discussed)we feel confident that our panel is absolutely Cspan worthy.

  7. Therein lies your flaw, thadw. The so-called “free rider” problem is not generated by Right to Work laws; it is generated by a union-demanded, legislatively-granted monopoly representation. That is, unions demand a monopoly to bargain for ALL employees, whether they want to join and/or pay union dues or not. Politicians who benefit from union dues for politics grant that monopoly, thus “forcing” a union to represent those who do not want to join and/or pay union dues. Thus, it is not Right to Work laws that “make it possible for some people to enjoy the [so-called] benefits of unionization without having to contribute themselves”; it is the privilege which union bosses themselves demand and jealously guard. Right to Work laws would not be necessary in the absence of monopoly bargaining power.

    In short, unions complaining of a “free rider” problem are a little like someone who buys a horse, and then complains about the price of oats. Apologists who cite such a “problem” are either igorant of that history, or simply choose not to mention the facts.

    As for Mr. Schmitt, at least the money that pays my salary is voluntarily given (by people whose right to privacy in their political beliefs is entitled to the same respect as those who contribute to the NAACP Legal Defense and Education Fund, though unions spent twelve years in an ultimately unsuccessful effort to get lists of contributors, likely in order harass them), unlike the money from union treasuries that funds CEPR.

    However, Schmitt makes the valid point that I did not read the study, and its limited scope. My comment should more appropriately have been directed at Leaman’s “claim[ that] there is general correspondence between unionization and prosperity.” Mea culpa. I would, however, be entirely surprised if CEPR had NOT produced “studies” making such claims while ignoring the higher cost of living (including higher taxation) in states in which politicians are bought and paid for with forced dues.

    Finally, Right to Work laws have nothing to do with the “employment at will” doctrine. Check your semantics, Larry.

  8. Mr. Young,

    It comes down to whether you think unions and collective bargaining are a good idea or not. I will concede that unions do claim “monopoly bargaining power” for the employees they represent. Indeed, that’s precisely the point.

    How is the legitimacy of this monopoly established? Via the union certification process, that is by workers at a given site collectively approving having a union serve as their bargaining agent. In short, the process for establishing a union’s legitimacy is the same as the process for establishing a government’s legitimacy–majority will wins.

    Given this, it absolutely makes sense to describe right-to-work laws as imposing a free rider problem. Unions are legally obliged to provide benefits to (including legal assistance) non-members who contribute nothing in return.

    There is one other logically possible scenario that you implicitly point to: perhaps unions could represent some workers at a given site, while non-members could negotiate their own contracts on their own. But quite clearly the end result of this “alternative” is to eliminate unions altogether. All employers would need to do to eliminate the unionized portion of the firm is decide to hire only non-union workers.

    In the end then, it comes down to whether you like unions and the idea of collective bargaining or not. If you do, the right-to-work laws undermine unions institutions–period. If you don’t, then you favor right-to-work laws for the same reason.

    There are many other pieces of evidence on the link between unions and prosperity that could be cited, the most obvious one being that union workers earn about 30% more than non-union workers.

    Finally, you should have read Mr. Schmitt’s post a little more carefully; he specifically noted that his organization has received only a very small amount of money from unions. More generally, it’s a pretty large insult to professional economists with doctorates in their field to imply that they deliberately cook the books to get the findings they “want,” especially without any attempt to specifically show problems with the research.

  9. “Right to Work laws have nothing to do with the “employment at will” doctrine. Check your semantics, Larry.”

    Thanks Mr. Young. I will look back into this. My understanding of the two has been that they were(attached, linked or very closely related) to one another, in some fashion.

  10. It is of endless fascination to me, thadw, that many of the same people who savage conservatives who oppose abortion and re-defining “marriage” as imposing their values on private lives enthusiastically defend having the government grant special privileges to an elite group simply because some other co-workers (not a majority; only a majority of those voting) decide that it would be a good idea to do so, thus extinguishing a worker’s right to control his or her own terms and conditions of employment.

    Contrary to the self-serving assertions of you and the commenter from CEPR, those who support Right to Work laws do not necessarily have a problem with unions, though obviously, some do. The problem many of us have is with special privileges and union coercion. And contrary to your assertion, the so-called “free-rider” problem is one sought by union bosses as an excuse to extract money from/exert power over those who don’t want or need their “representation.” Suggesting otherwise is willful historical ignorance. It only “absolutely makes sense to describe right-to-work laws as imposing a free rider problem” if you accept the tyranny of the majority which is the current state of American labor relations law. Interestingly, it is a model which, it is my understanding, is not prevalent in the industrialized world.

    Of course, the suggestion that “the end result of this ‘alternative’ is to eliminate unions altogether” and that “All employers would need to do to eliminate the unionized portion of the firm is decide to hire only non-union workers” is hyperbolic claptrap which ignores the ability to protect unionized workers with legal protections, and bespeaks sub silentio a profound skepticism of union claims of quality products and services delivered by a unionized workforce, as well as the “prosperity” which you attribute to unionization. It also bespeaks either: (1) a profound doubt as to the ability of unions to persuade workers who have a free choice; and/or (2) a profound arrogance as to workers’ ability to act in their own best interests.

    Moreover, the very fact that workers have been voting with their feet for decades demonstrates the lack of substance in your assertions. Of course, that is the kind of freedom the far Left and Mr. Leaman despises.

  11. Oops. I was wrong. About 70 Years separate the two! Thanks again for pointing that out.

  12. It’s such a rare opportunity to have a relatively substantive discussion going between opposite points of the political spectrum, so we’ll let this keep going a little further, so long as it approximates a dialogue.

    Let’s start with your last point first. Nothing in my post indicates any lack of confidence in union products or the desire of a substantial portion of workers to be represented by unions. If all the workplaces in the U.S. where a majority of workers wanted a union had a union, and all the workplaces in the U.S. where a majority of workers didn’t want a union didn’t have one, I’d be perfectly happy. If you and I can agree on at least that much, I’d be delighted.

    In reality, the current election system is badly flawed. Employers are allowed to subject workers to anti-union propaganda films on the job, and engagement in all manner of harassment and threats (i.e we’ll close the plant if you unionize), while deny similar access to pro-union organizers. Calling the current process “democratic” is a travesty of the word. I humbly predict Mr. Young will disagree with that characterization, but there is plenty of evidence to back up that claim.

    Also, you’ve yet to provide a clear argument about why the “free rider” argument is wrong; calling it a lie made up by evil union bosses is not the same as providing a clear argument. Just to clarify my position, I’d be perfectly happy with right-to-work laws if they permitted union security clauses in which non-union members are only required to pay a fee in exchange for services rendered and don’t have to actually joint the union. (This is an “agency shop,” as opposed to a “union shop.”) That would be fine by me. But we don’t ask the AAA to help motorists who aren’t members or don’t pay their dues; why should unions be forced to do the same for non-members whom they are obliged to represent?

    As to the hypothetical example, I think you misunderstood it. The hypothetical example is, what if labor law allowed some workers of the same type within the same firm to be represented by a union, but allowed others to be free contractors. In practice what is likely to happen is a) the employer may offer higher wages or benefits initially to the non-union workers, so as to get rid of the union entirely; or b) the employer may gradually wear down the union by making new hires only non-union workers (how could you force the employer to make new hires a union worker and not violate the very logic of “right to work”); or c) the employer may systematically give favorable treatment to non-union employees. The aim of any of these strategies would be to wear down the union and eventually get rid of it. If you’re trying to tell me that a workplace in which workers with union and non-union workers doing the same jobs on different contracts is a stable, realistic possibility…well I just don’t believe you. Union representation only works if it covers all the workers; otherwise the employer can pit one of group of workers off against another, or take other steps to make union membership unattractive.

    The central issue then, as you rightly point out, is the legitimacy of the idea of a union that is empowered to represent all workers in a workplace, even the people who didn’t vote for the union. To put it another way, do individuals who don’t vote for the union have a RIGHT to work in a nonunion environment?

    Of course they do, in theory and in practice. They can go to another nonunion employer if they like. They can quit work altogether. No one is forcing those persons to stay in that unionized job.

    So the idea that these persons are “forced” to be represented by the union is false. They are only “forced” to join the union if they decide they wish to keep this particular job.

    But is it legitimate to require workers to join a union to keep working in a particular workplace, even if they voted against the union? Yes, for two reasons. First, as I’ve stated twice already on this thread, since the union is legally required to provide all the workers at the site benefits, it’s reasonable that all should be asked to contribute to the union.

    Second, by its very nature, collective bargaining requires the participation of all the workers to be effective. The premise of collective bargaining is that employers and workers are in an asymmetrical power relationship–that’s a core assumption of U.S. labor law. It’s less costly for an employer to fire a worker and find someone else than it is for a worker to quit and find another job–that’s the basis of the asymmetry. What collective bargaining does is balance out the power at least to some degree; if all workers together choose to strike, that will impose real costs on the employer. Hence, workers in a unionized setting will have bargaining power they cannot have as separate individuals. But for this redress of the balance of power to be effective, all the workers have to participate.

    Put another way, accommodating the wishes of the minority not to have a union would in effect deprive the majority of the right to be effectively represented by a union and obtain the benefits of collective bargaining. Unfortunately or not, this is not a situation in which it is possible to accommodate both the pro or the anti-union views simultaneously. It has to be, by the very nature of the thing one way or the other. Hence, majority rule makes sense and indeed is the only plausible option.

    (Majority rule applies in many other instances in democracy to as well….we don’t get to opt out of taxes, even if we oppose what they are being spent for or opposed some particular tax increase.)

    Finally, Mr. Young is correct to say the American labor law is unique– it is uniquely stacked against workers. But the principle that majority consent to a union is sufficient to provide a union with the right to represent all workers within a firm is pretty universal. In Canada, they have the card check procedure; if a majority sign the cards, the union is in place. In the UK, it’s also majority rule. If it’s different in some other country, I’d like to hear about it.

    Back to the right-to-work issue, one last point: society already abridges the “right to work” in countless ways. You can’t set up shop as a lawyer or a doctor, for instance, if you’re not licensed. That’s a restriction on my “right” to work in those fields. Why are such restrictions in place? To protect the public and the integrity of those professions. The public good thus secured is judged to outweigh the restrictions on absolute liberty it entails. In the case of states where union membership or fee payment is a requirement of working at a unionized site, the public good secured is a) the encouragement of collective bargaining arrangements and the health of unions as an institution and also b) freedom of contract between unions and employers.

    Whether you think those goods outweigh the restriction on liberty they involve depends, obviously, on what you think about the importance of collective bargaining itself.

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