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Monday January 23, 2017
Posted: May 21, 2014

‘Right-to-work’ rhetoric merits a ‘meh’ at Maine business gathering

Commercial Confidential — Business and economics news for greater Portland

Yesterday at the Maine Real Estate and Development Association's spring conference in Portland, Alan Hall, a pro-business advocate from Utah offered his advice for Maine's business leaders to improve the business climate here. Staff writer Jessica Hall included this quote in her report from the event:

“Don’t fight each other. Go beyond politics. The time to make the changes is now. You probably need to take some drastic measures to move the state forward.”

Sounds good, in theory, but the devil's in the details. And one of the details that Hall touted is Utah's status as a "right-to-work" state.

Far from being "beyond politics," "right-to-work" is a political hot potato right now. Such laws prevent labor unions from force employees to join the union or pay dues as a condition for employment at companies where unions operate. You might recognize the concept as the idea that packed Michigan's state house with hundreds of protesters two winters ago.

The conventional wisdom holds that "right to work" is very popular among pro-business groups and libertarians and very unpopular among labor unions.

But at this particular gathering of Maine business leaders, the topic apparently landed with a thud. Here's a pair of tweets from the event from Augusta's Deputy Director of Business Services, Keith Luke:




Some disclosure: I'm a union member (the News Guild of Maine). But frankly, we work in an industry that's been wracked by closures and layoffs in recent years. Our just union isn't tremendously influential right now.

And if you look at the Census Bureau's Current Population Survey data on union membership, it's hard to see how labor unions would have a tremendous amount of influence on the rest of Maine's private-sector labor market, either:

% of Maine workers unionized
% of Utah workers unionized
Total (private sector only)
Total (private and public sectors)

Data courtesy of Barry Hirsch, Georgia State University and David Macpherson, Trinity University, via

Unions are undoubtedly still influential among government agencies, and maybe that's why "right to work" is so popular among budget-writing politicians. But private-sector business owners must choose their battles, and it’s hard to see how this one would make much difference for them.


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