Data show anti-union ‘right-to-work’ laws damage state economies: As Michigan’s repeal takes effect, New Hampshire should continue to reject ‘right-to-work’ legislation

Key findings:

  • Data show that states with so-called “right-to-work” (RTW) laws have lower unionization rates, wages, and benefits compared with non-RTW states.
  • On average, workers in RTW states are paid 3.2% less than workers with similar characteristics in non-RTW states, which translates to $1,670 less per year for a full-time worker.
  • Claims that weakening unions will lead to state job growth have proven inaccurate. There are no measurable employment advantages between RTW and non-RTW states.

This week, Michigan’s 2023 repeal of a so-called “right-to-work” (RTW) law takes effect. Meanwhile, New Hampshire’s state legislature is once again debating a RTW bill at a moment when it could not be clearer that RTW laws damage states’ economies by accelerating income inequality and reducing job quality, without delivering any job growth.  

RTW laws—and the phrase “right to work” itself—are intended to deceive and confuse. The misleadingly named policy is designed to make it more difficult for workers to form and sustain unions and negotiate collectively for better wages, benefits, and working conditions.

As Martin Luther King, Jr. pointed out in 1961, “right to work” is a “false slogan” since RTW laws provide neither rights nor work and are in fact designed “to rob us of our civil rights and job rights [and] to destroy labor unions and the freedom of collective bargaining by which unions have improved wages and working conditions of everyone.” Decades later, research bears out King’s contention that “wherever these laws have been passed, wages are lower.”

RTW laws are historically rooted in racism and designed to maintain unequal power. When private-sector workers first gained legal protection to unionize following passage of the federal National Labor Relations Act in 1935, unionization rates grew quickly. In response, opponents waged anti-union, explicitly white supremacist campaigns to limit worker power and maintain Jim Crow labor relations. These campaigns pursued state legislation as a means to constrain workers’ newly won federal union rights via RTW policies, and especially to block multiracial union organizing. RTW laws have since spread to 27 states and continue to generate economic outcomes that disadvantage all workers.

Figure A shows that Southern and Western states adopted the majority of RTW laws in the mid-twentieth century. But since 2010, five additional states with historically above average unionization rates—Indiana, Kentucky, Michigan, West Virginia, and Wisconsin—adopted RTW laws, newly limiting workers’ collective bargaining rights in those states. Michigan became the first of these states to repeal its RTW law.

Figure A

States with RTW laws limiting worker power: States with statutory restrictions on all workers' collective bargaining rights due to so-called "right-to-work" laws

State “Right to work”
Alaska Non-RTW
California Non-RTW
Colorado Non-RTW
Connecticut Non-RTW
Delaware Non-RTW
District of Columbia Non-RTW
Hawaii Non-RTW
Illinois Non-RTW
Kansas Pre-2010 RTW
Maine Non-RTW
Maryland Non-RTW
Massachusetts Non-RTW
Minnesota Non-RTW
Missouri Non-RTW
Montana Non-RTW
New Hampshire Non-RTW
New Jersey Non-RTW
New Mexico Non-RTW
New York Non-RTW
Ohio Non-RTW
Oregon Non-RTW
Pennsylvania Non-RTW
Rhode Island Non-RTW
Vermont Non-RTW
Washington Non-RTW
Alabama Pre-2010 RTW
Arizona Pre-2010 RTW
Arkansas Pre-2010 RTW
Florida Pre-2010 RTW
Georgia Pre-2010 RTW
Idaho Pre-2010 RTW
Iowa Pre-2010 RTW
Louisiana Pre-2010 RTW
Mississippi Pre-2010 RTW
Nebraska Pre-2010 RTW
Nevada Pre-2010 RTW
North Carolina Pre-2010 RTW
North Dakota Pre-2010 RTW
Oklahoma Pre-2010 RTW
South Carolina Pre-2010 RTW
South Dakota Pre-2010 RTW
Tennessee Pre-2010 RTW
Texas Pre-2010 RTW
Utah Pre-2010 RTW
Virginia Pre-2010 RTW
Wyoming Pre-2010 RTW
Indiana Post-2010 RTW
Kentucky Post-2010 RTW
Michigan Post-2010 RTW
West Virginia Post-2010 RTW
Wisconsin Post-2010 RTW


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Notes: † Michigan enacted RTW in 2013, then in 2023 became the first state in nearly 60 years to repeal a RTW law. This change took effect February 13, 2024.

Source: Author's analysis of "Right-to-Work States," National Conference of State Legislatures.

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Right-wing groups similarly targeted New Hampshire for passage of RTW in 2011, when then-Governor John Lynch vetoed a RTW bill passed by the legislature. New Hampshire has since remained a perennial target for anti-union proposals, with RTW bills rejected at least seven times since 2010. Most recently, the New Hampshire House voted down a 2021 RTW proposal.

No New England state has a RTW law, and repeated defeats of RTW have demonstrated its persistent unpopularity among New Hampshire voters and legislators across party lines. Moreover, RTW has faced three consecutive rejections in other states: Michigan repealing RTW in 2023, Illinois voters approving a constitutional Workers’ Rights Amendment (which bans future RTW laws) in 2022, and Missouri voters overwhelmingly rejecting their legislature’s attempt to impose RTW restrictions in 2018.  

Nonetheless, in 2024, some well-funded, out-of-state anti-union groups continue to demonstrate relentless interest in using state legislatures as vehicles to attack workers’ rights, and RTW was one of the first bills introduced by House Republicans in New Hampshire’s legislative session.

Below, we share the latest data assessing the economic impacts of RTW laws, including in the five states where the law was most recently adopted, illustrating why New Hampshire has been right to repeatedly reject RTW and why lawmakers should do so again in 2024.

So-called “right-to-work” laws constrain workers’ collective bargaining rights, resulting in lower wages and benefits for all workers 

RTW laws are designed to diminish workers’ collective power by prohibiting unions and employers from negotiating union security agreements into collective bargaining agreements, making it harder for workers to form, join, and sustain unions. As a result, states with RTW laws generally have lower unionization rates than non-RTW states. Private-sector workers in RTW states are less likely to be covered by a union contract than peers in non-RTW states, even after controlling for other factors that can be related to unionization (such as industry, occupation, education, age, gender, race, ethnicity, and foreign-born status). 

Consequently, workers in states with RTW laws have lower wages, reduced access to health and retirement benefits, and higher workplace fatality rates. On average, workers in RTW states are paid 3.2% less than workers with similar characteristics in non-RTW states, which translates to $1,670 less per year for a full-time worker.1

Figure B illustrates that unionized workers are 64% more likely to have employment-provided health insurance and 63% more likely to have employment-provided retirement benefits than their non-union counterparts. About 80% of union workers have employer-provided health and retirement benefits compared with only about half of non-union workers.  

Figure B

Union workers are far more likely to have employer-provided health and retirement benefits: Share of workers with health insurance and retirement benefits, by union status, 2023

Benefit Share of workers participating in benefit
Health insurance, union 74%
Health insurance, non-union 45%
Retirement, union 85%
Retirement, non-union 52%
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Source: EPI analysis of 2023 National Compensation Survey (NCS) data from the Bureau of Labor Statistics. 

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By weakening unions, “right-to-work” laws fuel economic inequality

State policies like RTW that constrain workers’ rights to unionize and collectively bargain are fundamentally linked to key economic and labor market outcomes—including measures of inequality. Data show that unions reduce income inequality across the economy, counteract racial and gender labor market inequities, and reduce public-sector pay gaps

Through bringing workers’ collective power to the bargaining table, unions are able to win better wages and benefits for working people—reducing income inequality as a result. As shown in Figure C, there was less income inequality in decades when union density was higher. But as unionization rates declined—particularly after 1979—income inequality grew.

The erosion of collective bargaining over the last five decades has suppressed workers’ wages. Median wages would be 7.9% higher if unionization hadn’t declined between 1979 and 2017. This translates into over $3,900 annually in lost wages for a full-time worker.2

Figure C

Attacks on workers’ right to unionize benefit the rich: Union membership and share of income going to the top 10%, 1917–2023

Union membership rate Share of income going to the top 10%
1917 11.00%  45.0%
1918 12.10% 44.0%
1919 14.30% 45.9%
1920 17.50% 44.1%
1921 17.60% 47.4%
1922 14.00% 46.1%
1923 11.70% 43.7%
1924 11.30% 45.7%
1925 11.00% 47.2%
1926 10.70% 47.6%
1927 10.60% 47.1%
1928 10.40% 48.2%
1929 10.10% 47.0%
1930 10.70% 46.3%
1931 11.20% 46.3%
1932 11.30% 48.3%
1933 9.50% 48.0%
1934 9.80% 49.1%
1935 10.80% 48.1%
1936 11.10% 48.4%
1937 18.60% 47.5%
1938 23.90% 47.1%
1939 24.80% 48.6%
1940 23.50% 48.9%
1941 25.40% 47.0%
1942 24.20% 42.3%
1943 30.10% 38.9%
1944 32.50% 36.1%
1945 33.40% 35.3%
1946 31.90% 37.0%
1947 31.10% 36.9%
1948 30.50% 38.9%
1949 29.60% 38.3%
1950 30.00% 39.1%
1951 32.40% 37.9%
1952 31.50% 36.6%
1953 33.20% 35.7%
1954 32.70% 36.0%
1955 32.90% 36.7%
1956 33.20% 35.7%
1957 32.00% 35.7%
1958 31.10% 35.5%
1959 31.60% 36.0%
1960 30.70% 35.5%
1961 28.70% 35.6%
1962 29.10% 36.2%
1963 28.50% 36.6%
1964 28.50% 37.0%
1965 28.60% 36.7%
1966 28.70% 36.3%
1967 28.60% 35.3%
1968 28.70% 35.5%
1969 28.30% 34.1%
1970 27.90% 33.5%
1971 27.40% 34.1%
1972 27.50% 34.4%
1973 27.10% 34.6%
1974 26.50% 33.6%
1975 25.70% 34.0%
1976 25.70% 33.9%
1977 25.20% 34.3%
1978 24.70% 34.0%
1979 25.40% 34.3%
1980 23.60% 33.9%
1981 22.30% 34.3%
1982 21.60% 34.6%
1983 20.1% 35.3%
1984 18.8% 36.5%
1985 18.0% 36.6%
1986 17.5% 36.3%
1987 17.0% 37.5%
1988 16.8% 39.3%
1989 16.4% 38.8%
1990 16.0% 38.8%
1991 16.0% 38.3%
1992 15.7% 39.4%
1993 15.7% 39.1%
1994 15.5% 39.2%
1995 14.9% 39.9%
1996 14.5% 40.8%
1997 14.1% 41.5%
1998 13.9% 41.9%
1999 13.9% 42.3%
2000 13.4% 42.8%
2001 13.3% 42.0%
2002 13.3% 41.5%
2003 12.9% 41.6%
2004 12.5% 42.4%
2005 12.5% 43.6%
2006 12.0% 44.3%
2007 12.1% 44.0%
2008 12.4% 43.6%
2009 12.3% 42.5%
2010 11.9% 43.9%
2011 11.8% 44.3%
2012 11.3% 45.6%
2013 11.3% 44.9%
2014 11.1% 45.6%
2015 11.1% 45.5%
2016 10.7% 45.3%
2017 10.7% 45.5%
2018 10.5% 45.8%
2019 10.3% 45.7%
2020 10.8% 46.5%
2021 10.3% 47.9%
2022 10.1% 48.3%
2023 10.0%
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Source: Data on union membership follow the composite series found in Historical Statistics of the United States through 1982, updated through 2023 using Bureau of Labor Statistics, series ID: LUU0204899600. Income inequality (share of income to top 10%) data are from the World Inequality Database.

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Figure D shows changes in unionization rates broken down by RTW status, differentiating between states that adopted RTW either before or after 2010. Unionization has declined far more sharply in the states that adopted RTW most recently, falling 3.8 percentage points between 2010 and 2023. But unionization rates remain lowest in states that have long had RTW laws in place. Overall, unionization rates were 5.0% in states that had adopted RTW prior to 2010, 9.7% in states that adopted RTW after 2010, and 14.3% in non-RTW states.

In New Hampshire, union membership held fairly steady during this period, dropping only 0.9 percentage points between 2010 and 2023. The New Hampshire unionization rate was 9.3% in 2023, just below the national average of 10.0%. If New Hampshire adopted RTW, they could expect to risk similarly accelerating declines in union membership and increasing income inequality.

Figure D

Recent RTW-adopting states have seen large decline in union membership: Percentage point change in share of workers who are members of a union between 2010 and 2023

Change in membership, 2010–2023
Pre-2010 RTW -0.8
Post-2010 RTW -3.8
Non-RTW -2.0
New Hampshire -0.9


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Source: EPI analysis of Economic Policy Institute. 2023. Current Population Survey Extracts, Version 1.0.38,

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“Right-to-work” laws erode job quality without creating job growth

Despite persistent claims from RTW proponents that weakening unions will lead to state job growth, comparisons of RTW and non-RTW states over decades show no relationship between employment levels and RTW laws. Figure E illustrates the prime-age employment-to-population ratio—the share of the population ages 25–54 with a job—has no clear differences among three sets of states: those that have remained non-RTW, those that adopted RTW before 2010, and those that adopted RTW after 2010. Employment trends across all sets of states reflect fluctuations within business cycles; recessions are shaded in grey. There are no measurable employment advantages between RTW and non-RTW states.

Figure E

Right-to-work does not buy any advantage in creating jobs for state residents: Prime-age (25–54) employment as a share of population, by pre-2010 RTW, post-2010 RTW, and non-RTW states

Year Pre-2010 RTW Post-2010 RTW Non-RTW
1989 80.0% 78.7% 80.1%
1990 80.1% 78.6% 79.6%
1991 79.4% 77.3% 78.3%
1992 79.2% 78.0% 77.8%
1993 79.4% 79.3% 77.9%
1994 80.1% 79.8% 78.6%
1995 80.5% 80.5% 79.1%
1996 80.7% 81.1% 79.7%
1997 81.1% 81.8% 80.6%
1998 81.3% 81.6% 80.9%
1999 81.6% 82.1% 81.2%
2000 81.5% 82.1% 81.3%
2001 80.4% 81.0% 80.6%
2002 79.1% 79.5% 79.5%
2003 78.8% 78.9% 78.8%
2004 78.9% 78.7% 79.1%
2005 79.5% 79.1% 79.3%
2006 79.7% 78.8% 80.1%
2007 79.9% 78.5% 80.2%
2008 78.9% 77.8% 79.4%
2009 75.5% 73.8% 76.3%
2010 74.8% 73.6% 75.6%
2011 74.9% 74.4% 75.4%
2012 75.7% 75.3% 75.8%
2013 75.6% 75.6% 76.2%
2014 76.4% 76.4% 77.0%
2015 76.6% 77.1% 77.8%
2016 77.3% 78.5% 78.3%
2017 78.0% 79.1% 79.0%
2018 78.7% 80.2% 79.8%
2019 79.4% 80.1% 80.4%
2020 75.7% 76.1% 75.5%
2021 77.5% 77.8% 77.6%
2022 79.4% 79.1% 80.4%
2023 80.4% 80.4% 81.0%
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Note: Lines are weighted averages of three sets of states: those without RTW laws, those who have passed RTW laws since 2010, and all other RTW states. Shaded areas represent recessions.

Source: EPI analysis of Economic Policy Institute. 2023. Current Population Survey Extracts, Version 1.0.38,

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Prior studies have likewise shown no causal link between a state’s RTW status and its job growth. For example, studies of Oklahoma after the state enacted RTW in 2001 found a significant reduction in private-sector unionization, but no measurable effect on employment growth. Similarly, researchers at the University of Kentucky examined state economic performance across Southern U.S. states from 1964 to 2004 and found that RTW status had no relationship to state economic outcomes. When studies have claimed to find such effects, it is often due to failure to control for other critical factors, such as education levels of the workforce, proximity to transportation hubs, technological advances, or natural resources.

New Hampshire should continue to reject RTW and the economic damage it inflicts on states

At a moment of historic inequality and record corporate profits, it is no surprise we are also seeing historically high levels of approval for unions. Workers are looking to unions as critical vehicles for fixing what’s broken at work and in our wildly unequal economy. The large gap between the share of workers who want a union and the share of workers who are in a union underscores that our weak federal labor laws, which are further undermined by RTW measures in over half of U.S. states, are not working. Because state RTW laws diminish workers’ rights, weaken unions, and further concentrate corporate power, they are the opposite of what states need to address chronic economic problems of widening inequality and eroding job quality.

Fundamental reform of our labor laws is required to rebuild an economy that guarantees all workers the freedom to unionize and collectively bargain, and no longer leaves most workers behind. At the state level, this reform must include repeal of existing RTW laws across the country, and continued rejection of new RTW proposals in states like New Hampshire.


1. This difference is based on a regression model which accounts for demographic differences (e.g. gender, age, marital status, race/ethnicity, and education), individual labor market controls (e.g. full-time status, hourly status, union status, occupation, and industry), state-level labor market controls (e.g. unemployment rate), and three measures that account for differences in the cost of living between RTW and non-RTW states. The 3.2% difference in average wages is applied to an average wage of $23.98.

2. Here, we are extrapolating from 2017 applying the 7.9% difference to the median hourly wage of $23.98 in 2023. For a full-time worker, this yields a difference of $3,940 per year. Further, this is likely a lower bound given the continued decline in unionization of 0.8 percentage points since 2017.