By Mitch Kokai
“The right to live includes the right to work.”
That simple statement opens the text of a state law that has helped boost North Carolina’s economic competitiveness for nearly 75 years.
The state will mark the milestone 75th anniversary of its right-to-work law on March 18, 2022.
“Research continues to indicate that right-to-work states not only create more jobs than their counterparts, but workers in those states report higher life satisfaction,” said John Locke Foundation President Donald Bryson. “North Carolina is on the verge of its diamond anniversary of seeing these benefits.”
Approved in 1947, as the state and nation emerged from the great economic dislocation associated with World War II, the law set boundaries on labor union activity in the Tar Heel State.
It banned the “closed shop,” an arrangement in which union membership is a necessary part of getting and keeping a job. The law also banned a “union shop,” in which an employer could hire nonunion workers as long as they joined the union within a certain time period. The law prohibited the mandatory collection of union dues by employers through payroll deductions.
The federal Taft-Hartley Act, approved by Congress three months later in June 1947, ensured that North Carolina’s labor policy could prevail even if federal policies tilted more toward a pro-union stance.
The full “Declaration of Policy as to Labor Organizations,” now enshrined as Chapter 95, Article 10 of the N.C. General Statutes, states:
“The right to live includes the right to work. The exercise of the right to work must be protected and maintained free from undue restraints and coercion. It is hereby declared to be the public policy of North Carolina that the right of persons to work shall not be denied or abridged on account of membership or nonmembership in any labor union or labor organization or association.”
The 1947 law included some teeth. “Any person who may be denied employment or be deprived of continuation of his employment in violation of [the right-to-work law] shall be entitled to recover from such employer and from any other person, firm, corporation, or association acting in concert with him by appropriate action in the courts of this State such damages as he may have sustained by reason of such denial or deprivation of employment.”
Florida was the first state to adopt a right-to-work law in 1943, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures. North Carolina was one of 10 states to join Florida in 1947. Neighbors Georgia, Tennessee, and Virginia were also among that group of 10. Our other neighbor, South Carolina, became a right-to-work state in 1954.
More than half of the 50 states now have right-to-work protections.
“Being a right-to-work state benefits an economy through more outside investment, lower cost of living, and higher economic productivity,” according to Taylor Hersch’s March 2021 article, “The future of right-to-work laws,” for Chamber Business News.
The article cites multiple benefits of right-to-work status compiled by Jeffrey Eisenach of NERA Economic Consulting.
• Private-sector employment grew by 27% in right-to-work states from 2001 to 2016, which was 12% higher than states without right-to-work protection.
• The annual unemployment rate was 0.4 percentage points lower in RTW states. If states without RTW protection had the same higher employment rate, 249,000 more people would have jobs.
• Output in RTW states grew 38% from 2001 to 2016, compared to 29% in other states.
• Real manufacturing output rose by more than 30% in RTW states from 2001 to 2016, compared with 21% in other states.
Union critics contend that right-to-work laws lower workers’ wages. That critique fails to account for a lower average cost of living in right-to-work states, Hersch reports.
Right-to-work laws in North Carolina and other states face repeated threats on Capitol Hill. U.S. House Democrats’ current Protecting the Right to Organize, or PRO, Act could erode or effectively abolish right-to-work protections if Congress enacts it.
“Our nation is seeing an increased push to repeal right-to-work laws and force unionization on American workers,” Bryson said. “This policy direction is not in line with American or North Carolina values because it removes valuable freedoms from individual workers, coerces political speech, and removes the relationship between employer and employee. It is vital that North Carolina understand and appreciate the facts and stay on the right-to-work path.”