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ANALYSIS: Are Unions Really Weaker in Right-to-Work States?

May 13, 2019, 11:33 AM

The motivations for adopting right-to-work requirements, both stated and unstated, center around limiting the strength and reach of labor unions. But are right-to-work states realizing those goals? Is there a real difference in union performance between the 27 states that have right-to-work laws and the 23 states plus the District of Columbia that don’t?

This analysis of Bloomberg Law’s 2018 labor data pits these two groups of states against each other to see how they compare on four key metrics of union strength:

  • Union density—the percentage of workers who are union members;
  • Organizing activity—the number of representation elections initiated and won by unions;
  • Labor unrest—the number of work stoppages initiated by workers; and
  • Earning power—the gap between average hourly wages earned by union and nonunion workers.

The results reveal a great deal of separation between right-to-work states and non-right-to-work states: Union membership rates, election wins, and strike activity were lower, on the whole, in right-to-work states in 2018. But when it came to earning more than nonunion workers, union members in right-to-work states actually out-performed those in non-right-to-work states.

Here are the detailed findings.

Union Density: Ultra-Low Membership Rates

In the 27 right-to-work states, union members accounted for 6.5% of the workforce in 2018. In the 23 non-right-to-work states and the District of Columbia, the membership rate in 2018 was more than twice as high: 13.9%.

The differences between the two groups are night and day.

Only two right-to-work states in 2018 had a workforce where more than one worker in 10 was a union member: Michigan (14.5%), which switched to right-to-work status in 2013; and Nevada (13.9%), which has long been a highly unionized outlier due to its concentration of hospitality-industry jobs.

On the flip side, only two states in the non-right-to-work column in 2018 had a workforce where fewer than one in 10 was a union member: New Hampshire (6.8%), with its small industry and government-sector footprints; and Missouri (9.4%), which enacted a right-to-work law in 2017, only to see it repealed by voters the following year. (The District of Columbia also experienced single-digit union membership in 2018, at 9.9%.)

Of the 20 least-unionized states in 2018, 19 were right-to-work states. (New Mexico, at No. 33, is the lone exception). At the other end of the spectrum, only Michigan (at No. 10) and Nevada (at No. 11) keep the top 20 from being right-to-work-free.

Organizing Activity: Fewer Elections, Fewer Wins

The National Labor Relations Board oversees the vast majority of union organizing attempts in U.S. private-sector workplaces. The number of representation elections held—and the frequency with which unions come out on the winning end of those elections—is a reliable indicator of labor’s prevalence in a given state.

In 2018, the 27 right-to-work states were home to 319 NLRB-sanctioned elections. Unions won 214 of those, for a win rate of 67.1%. Michigan saw the highest number of organizing wins for unions, with 30. Texas had 24 wins, and Florida and Nevada each had 20.

It’s a different story on the non-right-to-work side. The NLRB sanctioned 835 representation elections in those 23 states (and the District of Columbia). An even 600 of those were won by unions, which comes out to a 71.9% win rate. As with the right-to-work states, populous states tended to see the most activity: Unions won 131 elections in California, 91 in New York, and 51 in New Jersey.

Labor Unrest: A Small Smattering of Strikes

The contrast between the two groups of states is also clear when we gauge activity on the picket lines.

The 27 right-to-work states were home to 38 strikes in 2018, according to Bloomberg Law data. But in the same year, unions in the 23 non-right-to-work states called 131 strikes, more than three times as many. (There were no strikes in the District of Columbia in 2018.)

There were as many walkouts in, say, Illinois (30 strikes) and Pennsylvania (10) as there were in all 27 right-to-work states. Add in California (30) and Washington (15), and those four non-right-to-work states alone more than double the output of the right-to-work club when it comes to labor unrest.

It’s interesting to note that the highest strike totals among the right-to-work states in 2018 were all recent converts—states that adopted to right-to-work in the past 10 years. Michigan led the way with nine strikes, followed by West Virginia (five) and Wisconsin (four). Of the longer-standing right-to-work states, only Georgia experienced as many as three strikes for the entire year.

Earning Power: A Wider Edge Over Nonunion Workers

If unions in right-to-work states are reporting smaller membership shares and waging fewer work stoppages than their counterparts in non-right-to-work states, does that mean they are earning lower wages as well? Not necessarily.

Union workers typically draw larger paychecks than nonunion workers: It’s a big part of why they join unions. In 2018, for example, for every dollar the average U.S. nonunion worker earned, the average union worker earned $1.16.

This ratio varies from state to state. In states where labor flexes more power, one would expect union workers’ earnings to reflect that power. And in states where unions are held in check by right-to-work laws, the assumption might be that nonunion workers’ wages would have narrowed that gap.

But our analysis of Bloomberg law’s labor data shows that this is not the case. When all 27 right-to-work states are counted together, the average hourly earnings in 2018 were $25.78 for union workers and $20.92 for a nonunion worker. In other words, for every dollar a nonunion worker earned, a union member earned $1.23. That’s a bigger relative gap, not smaller, than the national average.

Meanwhile, in the 23 non-right-to-work states and the District of Columbia, union workers’ average hourly wage in 2018 was $28.26 and nonunion workers’ was $25.14, which means that union members earned only $1.12 for every dollar earned by nonunion workers. That wage gap is four cents smaller than the national average.

Of course, it should be noted that, dollar-for-dollar, union workers in non-right-to-work states are out-earning their counterparts in right-to-work states by a healthy margin ($28.26 to $25.78). But then, it’s also important to consider the predominance of Northeast and West Coast states among the non-right-to-work ranks, where overall wages are traditionally higher than in the rest of the country.

In any case, these wage averages suggest that, whatever correlation exists between the presence of a right-to-work law and union membership, elections, and work stoppages in a state, that correlation doesn’t appear to extend to workers’ strength at the bargaining table.


The analysis of the labor data show clear differences between union performance in right-to-work states and non-right-to-work states. The statistics suggest that right-to-work states are succeeding at limiting union strength in terms of membership, organizing, and unrest, but are seeing nonunion workers unable to gain ground on union workers in terms of earnings—even more so than in non-right-to-work states.

We’re unable to say with certainty whether these results were directly caused by the presence of the right-to-work doctrine. After all, the underlying labor conditions in a given state that led to low union membership are, most likely, the same conditions that would have led to the adoption of right-to-work in the first place.

In a future analysis, we will take a closer statistical look at states that adopted right-to-work status in recent years, and compare union strength metrics before and after the switch. This more focused, time-based research could provide further insight into the workplace effects of right-to-work.