The “New” Saskatchewan: Oklahoma North?

Of the litany of proposed changes contained in the Saskatchewan government’s Consultation Paper on the Renewal of Labour Legislation in Saskatchewan, the most pernicious is the suggestion that employees be allowed to opt out of paying union dues, yet still receive the full benefits of union membership. This idea is dangerously reminiscent of U.S. right-to-work (RTW) laws that already pervade the American south and have recently been proposed in northern states like Wisconsin and Indiana.

If this is the direction the current government wants to move, then it is incumbent that the people of Saskatchewan recognize what the adoption of RTW laws entail, because it will not only effect union members, it will effect all workers in our province, unionized or not.

Despite the name, “right-to-work” laws are no guarantee of a job, if anything they are a guarantee of smaller pay-cheques for workers, more punitive management styles, unsafe work environments and lower standards-of-living.

While RTW laws specifically target unions by making it harder for workers’ organizations to sustain themselves financially – by making it illegal for unions to require that each employee who benefits from the terms of a contract pay his or her share of the costs of administering it – they have a much broader impact on society at large.

So let’s look at what we can expect if Saskatchewan adopts RTW legislation.

Oklahoma adopted right-to-work legislation in 2001. Despite claims by proponents that the adoption of RTW would result in a mass influx of jobs to the state, since it’s adoption Oklahoma has lost a third of their manufacturing jobs and the average number of new companies coming into the state has been one-third lower in the decade since RTW was adopted than in the preceding decade. Moreover, Oklahoma’s unemployment rate in 2010 was double what it was when RTW was first adopted in 2001.

Surveys of manufacturers show that despite the claims of RTW champions, right-to-work laws are not a significant factor in decisions to relocate. Indeed, in 2010 manufacturers ranked it sixteenth among factors affecting location decisions. For higher-tech, higher-wage employers, nine of the ten most-favoured states are non-RTW, led by union-friendly Massachusetts.

For those firms that are seeking cheaper labour costs, it is much more lucrative to re-locate to places like Mexico or Central America where wages are lower than any RTW state could possibly offer and other regulations are lax or non-existent. Indeed, despite passing RTW legislation, Oklahoma witnessed one of its largest employers, General Motors, pull up stakes and head to Mexico, laying off 2,400 employees in 2006. Those that would counsel following a low-wage strategy as a means to attract employers must consider that it is not only a contest between Canadian provinces and American states, but also the third world. This is not a contest that we could (or should) try and win.

Certainly, there is no doubt that the adoption of RTW significantly reduces average wage-levels. According to the Economic Policy Institute, the impact of RTW laws is to lower average income by about $1,500 a year and to decrease the odds of getting supplemental health insurance or a pension through your job—for both union and nonunion workers alike.

However, the impact of RTW is not confined to wages. According to recent research from the University of Michigan that examined the U.S. construction industry, the rate of industry fatalities is 40 percent higher and the rate of occupational fatalities is 34 percent greater in right-to-work states than in free-bargaining states. Given that Saskatchewan already has one of the worst workplace injury rates in the country, it seems we can ill-afford to adopt legislation that would contribute to even greater levels of risk for Saskatchewan workers.

Social issues are not immune to the effect of right-to-work laws either. Eleven of the 15 states with the highest poverty rates in the U.S. are RTW states, while nine of the 11 states with the lowest are worker-friendly. Furthermore, the percentage of the 2008 population living in poverty in RTW states was 14.4 percent, while the percentage in worker-friendly states was 12.4 percent. In regards to health insurance, we find that 18.6 percent of people in RTW states are uninsured, while only 13.9 percent of people in worker-friendly states are uninsured. Lastly, RTW laws may even influence your life expectancy! Darrell Minor found that of the 13 states with the highest life expectancy rates, 10 are worker-friendly states. Conversely, of the 12 states with the lowest life expectancy rates, only two are worker-friendly states. In worker-friendly states, citizens can expect to live 77.6 years (the median), while citizens in RTW states can expect to die at 76.7.

Finally, proponents of RTW laws, such as the Saskatchewan Chamber of Commerce also make the argument that such laws are not only about economics, but also about “freedom of choice.”  They argue that workers should have the “choice” to opt-out of paying union dues while still receiving all the benefits and services that union membership provides. Given that the Chamber is so concerned about freedom of choice, we should ask them to live up to these high-minded principles and allow their own members to “opt-out” of paying dues yet continue to receive Chamber-provided services. I would not hold your breath waiting…..

The above evidence clearly shows that RTW laws are not the economic panacea that it’s proponents claim. In reality, adopting these laws will not only mean a substantial pay-cut for Saskatchewan workers, but also a marked decrease in our overall standard-of-living. If we are to judge from the record of actual places that have adopted RTW, we see that these laws negatively affect everyone, regardless of union membership. As a province we can strive to be many things, “Oklahoma North” should not be one of them.

Simon Enoch is Director of the Saskatchewan Office of the Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives. He holds a PhD in Communication & Culture from Ryerson University and a MA in Work & Society from McMaster University.


One comment

  1. Many thanks to Mr. Enoch and CCPA for pointing out the consequences of the Sask Government’s foray into Labour Legislation “renewal”. There are a few additional points that came to mind as I read it:

    1. Even if Oklahoma’s unemployment rate has doubled in the 10 years since RTW was adopted, I’m sure that when challenged, RTW proponents would point out that the situation is “better” (in terms of unemployment) than it might have been (Obama’s argument when challenged on his record). The Irony in Sask’s case is that, to my knowledge, we’re not worried about creating jobs since we already have the lowest unemployment in the country and we are trying to import workers.
    My impression, living here, though, is that the population is worried about creating higher-pay jobs that graduates want and, in many cases, can’t find. I don’t think that Labour Legislation Renewal (LLR) will solve that.
    2. Another point has been discussed most recently in regards to unions and seems to be the current hot item: union political contributions. This is exacerbated by many union members disagreeing with their unions contributing to the NDP whom they don’t support. Since these members don’t debate the issue in their union, they are being drawn even more closely to the Sask Party gov. who is saying, essentially, “Don’t worry, we’ll fight your battle against your union for you.”
    In addition, the population has a difficult time applying the argument they might have with union political contributions to those of business. For some reason they can’t understand that business has a vested interest in partisan support, too.
    3. So, if LLR is not an economic panacea and lowers the overall standard of living, what is the government trying to do? Here are 2 suggestions:
    a. Prevent “social disruption”. As organized workers get more militant, collective actions will cause social disruptions: strikes that even essential service legislation can’t prevent. These social disruptions will, in turn, create a debate that may turn on the government.
    b. I know this is an old reason but the outcome will be putting more wealth in the hands of the few. It’s clear that the Sask government sees its primary job as creating a better business environment and LLR is on its way to doing that.

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