Right to work, by the numbers



Part 1: Population and Population Movement

People who are pro-labor often argue against right-to-work legislation by pointing out its fundamental unfairness to dues-paying union members and by arguing that, in weakening unions, it erodes the wages, benefits, and working conditions of all workers. I myself made such an argument in an earlier post to this blog titled “Right to Work Is an Insult to Intelligence.”

But declining union membership and the increasing proportion of union membership that public employees constitute have, unfortunately, combined to reinforce the perception that union members are an unjustifiably pampered, “special” class of workers.

So, rather than try to change perceptions of unions, I think that it may be more effective to scrutinize the claims made by right-to-work proponents and to judge whether right-to-work states are, indeed, the veritable workers’ paradises that they are so often asserted to be.

This will be the first post in a series comparing pro-labor and right-to-work states on a whole range of factors from employment, wages, benefits, and working conditions to broader quality-of-life issues.

But to start, let’s look simply at the populations of the fifty states. Proponents of right-to-work legislation repeatedly claim that workers have been fleeing from pro-labor to right-to-work states since the Second World War.

The pro-labor states are indicated in bold, and the right-to-work states, in plain text. The populations are rounded to the nearest hundred thousand, and the second number is the percentage of the total U.S. population that lives in the state, rounded to the nearest tenth of a percent.
California 38,000,000 11.9%
Texas 26,000,000 8.0%
New York 19,600,000 6.2%
Florida 19,300,000 6.0%
Illinois 12,900,000 4.1%
Pennsylvania 12,800,000 4.0%
Ohio 11,600,000 3.7%
Georgia 9,900,000 3.2%
Michigan 9,900,000 3.2%
North Carolina 9,800,000 3.1%
New Jersey 8,900,000 2.8%
Virginia 8,200,000 2.6%
Washington 6,900,000 2.2%
Massachusetts 6,600,000 2.1%
Arizona 6,600,000 2.1%
Indiana 6,500,000 2.0%
Tennessee 6,500,000 2.0%
Missouri 6,000,000 1.9%
Maryland 5,900,000 1.9%
Wisconsin 5,700,000 1.8%
Minnesota 5,400.000 1.7%
Colorado 5,200,000 1.6%
Alabama 4,800,000 1.5%
South Carolina 4,700,000 1.5%
Louisiana 4,600,000 1.5%
Kentucky 4,400,000 1.4%
Oregon 3,900,000 1.2%
Oklahoma 3,800,000 1.2%
Connecticut 3,600.000 1.1%
Iowa 3,100,000 1.0%
Mississippi 3,000,000 1.0%
Arkansas 2,900,000 0,9%
Kansas 2,900.000 0.9%
Utah 2,900,000 0.9%
Nevada 2,800,000 0.9%
New Mexico 2,100,000 0.7%
Nebraska 1,900,000 0.6%
West Virginia 1,900,000 0.6%
Idaho 1,600,000 0.5%
Hawaii 1,400,000 0.4%
Maine 1,300,000 0.4%
New Hampshire 1,300,000 0.4%
Rhode Island 1,100,000 0.3%
Montana 1,000,000 0.3%
Delaware 900,000 0.3%
South Dakota 800,000 0.3%
Alaska 700,000 0.2%
North Dakota 700,000 0.2%
Vermont 600,000 0.2%
Wyoming 600,000 0.2%

It should be very apparent from the color-coding that, in terms of their populations, the states remain fairly evenly split between pro-labor and right-to-work states.

When right-to-work proponents assert that workers are fleeing pro-labor states, what they are actually pointing to is the undeniable population shift since the Second World War to the so-called “Sun Belt.” But they often fail to mention that the “Sun Belt” includes California, a very pro-labor state, and that California’s population exceeds that of the 21 least populous states, which include 12 of the 24 right-to-work states.

Actually, proponents of right-to-work typically do not cite actual population figures but, instead, cite percentage increases in population growth. Since 2000, the state with by far the highest rate of population growth has been North Dakota. The boom in “fracking” for oil and natural gas has led to annual 3% increases in the state’s population. But, as of 2010, North Dakota was still ranked 48th in population, with a total population that remains less than that of Columbus, Ohio—minus its suburbs.

In subsequent posts, I will look at employment trends and, more specifically, at current employment and job losses in the manufacturing sector. So, I will simply indicate here that although there was some population shift to the South and West in the 1950s and 1960s because the cheap labor available there did attract low-skilled manufacturing, by the 1980s and 1990s, much of that low-skilled manufacturing (particularly in the apparel industry) had begun to be relocated to Mexico and the Pacific Rim nations. The industries with a sustained presence in the Sun Belt since the Second World War have been related to or (like the electronics industry) have had their origins in manufacturing linked to national defense.

It is generally agreed that the major reasons for the population shift to the Sun Belt have had to do, not with advantages in manufacturing, but with the development of air-conditioning, the movement of large numbers of retirees to the most southern of the states, and the creation of large numbers of service jobs, especially in health care, to meet the needs of that large influx of retirees.

In their study “The Rise of the Sun Belt,” Edward L. Glaeser and Kristina Tobio of Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government point not just to those factors but also to the continuing availability of undeveloped land and inexpensive housing in those states. Due to the unbearable heat and humidity of the summer months, those states were arguably under-populated before the development of air-conditioning and unhealthy before the development of modern water and sanitation systems and antibiotics.

Moreover, the continuing boom in housing across the Sun Belt has created very large numbers of construction jobs. When the “mortgage bubble” burst, the “Great Recession” especially devastated the economies of states such as Florida, Arizona, California, and southern Nevada precisely because construction—and not manufacturing—had been driving their economic growth. And in large metropolitan areas, a large percentage of those construction jobs have been unionized, as in pro-labor states.