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Don’t blame right-to-work

Don’t blame right-to-work

Fred Birnbaum
December 18, 2014
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December 18, 2014

Any regular reader of newspapers in Idaho has probably read that average wages in Idaho are among the lowest in the United States and that Idaho’s per capita income ranks near the bottom in state rankings. Idaho’s enactment of a right-to-work law nearly 30 years ago is often cited as having depressed wages. Right-to-work laws ended compulsory unionism and exist in 24 states.

Wage rate growth before and after right-to-work was enacted is often cited as proof that right to work has eroded wages. However a more detailed review of Idaho per capita personal income, as a percentage of US per capita income, shows the peak to be in the mid-1970s, with the decline beginning before the change to right-to-work. In the mid-1970s Idaho was consistently at more than 90 percent of national income levels but this had slumped to 78 percent by the time right-to-work was approved by the voters in 1986.

The critics of right-to-work ignore the changing composition of jobs in Idaho during the last several decades. Perhaps the reason is that it would expose poor federal land use and environmental policies … but tarring right-to-work suits their purpose.

From 1947 to 1992 Idaho consistently harvested more than 1.4 billion board feet of timber on average, with about 20 years of harvests exceeding 1.6 billion board feet and the highest years approaching 2 billion board feet. Contrast that with the last decade’s range of circa 700 million to nearly 1.2 billion board feet.

The decline in the harvests on federal lands has been particularly dramatic from nearly 1 billion board feet harvested to less than 100 million board feet. If right-to-work depressed wages it would make timber harvests more cost competitive, not less competitive.

To get a better sense of how federal land use policies that have decimated the resource-based jobs in the timber industry including harvesting and processing wood in sawmills and the associated rural economic development; simply compare income declines to timber harvest declines.

It should be noted that right-to-work laws have not dented the resource-based economies of Wyoming, North Dakota and South Dakota, or economic powerhouses like Texas.

Conversely, coal-heavy West Virginia has remained a compulsory union state but that has not helped it overcome federal environmental policies that have drop-kicked the coal industry.

Interestingly the president of the United Auto Workers, Dennis Williams, had this to say about Michigan’s recent enactment of right-to-work, “We haven’t seen the falloff in membership, challenging right-to-work isn’t a priority right now.”

Perhaps it is time for progressives in Idaho to turn their attention to land use policies if they really care about wages.

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