This week, Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker (R) signed a law making his state the 25th to embrace "right-to-work" laws.
"This is one more tool that will help grow good-paying, family-supporting jobs here in the state of Wisconsin," Walker declared. But there's a bitter irony right there that goes bone-deep. "Good-paying, family-supporting jobs" are essentially the opposite of what Walker's change is going to usher into his state.
Right-to-work laws forbid unions and employers from establishing a contract that says anyone who works for the employer must either be or become a dues-paying union member. Critics point out these laws create a free-rider problem. Labor law requires unions to bargain on behalf of every worker — dues-paying members and not — covered by the contract they've established with a business. So right-to-work laws require unions to expend the same effort — and limited resources — on non-members.
Fans of right-to-work laws have a mix of motives. Some feel the National Labor Relations Board has taken an unfair pro-union turn. Others think the entire legal framework laid down by the National Labor Rights Act should be scrapped. Scott Walker's own rhetoric is straightforward enough: he thinks every worker should be free to choose whether they join a union or not, and right-to-work laws insure that freedom.
But the fact is, right-to-work laws make it far more difficult, if not impossible, for unions to function. And the natural incentive of every employer in profit-driven capitalism is to extract as much labor from workers as possible for as little recompense as possible. The presence of unions makes this harder. Their absence makes it easier.
As Danielle Kurtzleben explained at Vox, right-to-work states have much lower rates of union membership. More importantly, even if right-to-work laws increase employment, they do so by creating more bad jobs that pay poorly.
This is a big deal. If you define a "good job" as one that pays at least $37,000 a year and provides health coverage and retirement benefits, then the American economy has lost a third of its capacity to generate those jobs since 1979. And the collapse has been far more acute for workers without a college degree.
Looking ahead, the Bureau of Labor Statistics projects that by 2022, three-fourths of jobs will require a high school degree or less. An equivalent portion will pay $35,000 or less, and will come overwhelmingly from the food, sales, and other service sectors. Even more creepily, Vox recently profiled the rise of what it termed a modern "servant economy," in which apps like TaskRabbit, Instacart, and Shyp link people looking for odd jobs with people willing to pay to have their clothes washed, their mail picked up, their groceries bought, and more. Needless to say, this represents the leading edge of a new economy in which good pay, benefits, and job security are a thing of the past for all but wealthy Americans.
Joseph Heath explained in Economics Without Illusions that servants and butlers disappeared because, once the economy became productive enough on a per capita basis, even the time of the lower class was too valuable for the upper class to afford. But with the rise of inequality, purchasing power is becoming so lopsided that the upper class can afford their "servant economy" again.
These jobs obviously aren’t "good-paying." And they're not "family-supporting" either. Work by sociologist Robert Putnam and others has clarified how critical access to economic security is for family stability, childhood development, education, and plenty of other aspects of the social fabric. The mid-century rise in marital stability for the lower class followed closely behind the surge in union strength, and the collapse of those marriages came on the heels of unions' decline. The retail and service jobs that make up the new class of low-pay-low-benefit work often don't provide enough hours for families to get by on, and come with erratic and unpredictable schedules that make it impossible to hold down a second job. Not to mention they prevent parents from spending time with their children and spouses from spending time with each other.
Now, as Jim Pethokoukis argued in The Week, the forces driving inequality have been hitting all Western countries. But most all of them do a much better job combating inequality than we do, many have seen faster median income growth, and many have seen faster income growth for the poorest workers. And just about every Western country has done a better job preserving union power than America.
In short, unions are one of the great bulwarks holding back the forces driving the hourglass economy.
Whatever his intentions, the effect of Scott Walker's policies will be to further erode that bulwark. He wants to console the expanding pool of low-income Americans with an expanding pool of low-paying, unreliable, insecure work. His right-to-work law is going to entrench the very dynamic he claims to be fighting.