Demobilizing Democrats: The Political Consequences of Right-to-Work Laws

Event Date: 

Thursday, May 11, 2017 - 12:30pm

Event Location: 

  • The Lane Room (Ellison 3824)

Alexander Hertel-Fernandez
Assistant Professor of International and Public Affairs, Columbia University

Since wave elections in 2010, a number of newly-GOP controlled states have begun enacting so-called “right-to-work” laws, which permit workers at unionized employers to opt-out of paying fees to their union. Critics of these laws contend that they weaken unions, while their supporters argue that the provisions are needed to preserve worker freedom. Given the centrality of the labor movement for the Democratic party, what have these laws meant for American politics? Examining the political consequence of right-to-work laws, we find that these provisions fundamentally alter the political landscape of the states. Using matched border-county pairs across state lines to provide credible causal inference, we find that the passage of right-to-work laws dampens the electoral prospects of Democratic candidates for the presidency, Congress, and state elected office by reducing turnout among Democratic constituencies. Combining individual-level survey data and cross-state panel data, we further show that right-to-work laws reduce the political clout of labor unions in elections, weaken the odds that working class citizens will run for office, and shift state policy in a more conservative direction for years to come. Our findings have important implications for understanding the development of the American political economy, and shed light on the intersection between public policy, organized interest groups, and political parties.