In the tech world, ‘right-to-work’ laws aren’t a factor

If you ask the typical technology company executive or worker what he or she thinks of “right-to-work” laws, which say workers cannot be forced to join a union shop and pay dues as a condition of employment, you may get a blank stare for an answer.

That’s because the fast-growing technology industry, from the life sciences to information technology, has never been unionized and likely never will become so.

Not that techies are necessarily anti-union or pro-union. Their personal beliefs vary. For the vast majority of them, however, union shops are simply not aligned with the creative worlds in which they live and work.

That’s a factor the Wisconsin Legislature may bear in mind as it considers making Wisconsin the nation’s 25th “right-to-work” state, and why Gov. Scott Walker is right to suggest efforts to pass such a law “would be a distraction from the work that we’re trying to do.”

Membership in unions — especially those representing private workers — has been declining in percentage terms since the 1950s, when 35% of the nation’s workforce carried a union card. Today, that percentage is about 11.3%, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics. The decline has been even more precipitous if you consider only unionized private workers, who now make up just 6.7% of the workforce. The overall U.S. rate is higher because about 35% of all public employees are unionized, mainly at the state and local levels.

Walker and the Legislature already fought — and won — the public employee battle with the 2011 passage of Act 10, which effectively ended collective bargaining for many public workers. Is the latest proposal to pass a “right-to-work” law simply an effort to shoot the wounded?

Perhaps, except for the fact the wounded have already shot themselves when it comes to the high-growth tech sector.

Unionization rates in U.S. industries such as information services, financial services, computer sciences, mathematics, biotechnology, and arts and design are notoriously low — usually in the 2% to 4% range. None of the Internet giants of the Silicon Valley or beyond have unionized employees. The same holds true for most of Wisconsin’s larger tech companies. And yet those companies are often rated by their own employees as outstanding places to work.

The reasons for tech’s low union rates have to do with the nature of tech companies, which are by nature innovative and determined to create new markets while disrupting what came before. The people who work in those settings value innovation far more than laws that protect workers’ jobs, because most of them know they can be fired in a heartbeat if their company fails to attract enough capital or market a winning product.

In their book The Rise and Fall of U.S. Unions, authors Emin Dinlersoz and Jeremy Greenwood summed it up when they wrote, “Technological innovation gave life to the American union. Then technological innovation killed the American union.”

The industrial revolution and its “man-versus-machine” climate spurred the need for unions in the 19th and 20th centuries, while the rise of the Internet and “man-leveraging-machine” reversed the trend. Today’s technology has sharpened the need for more educated workers who can adapt to ever-changing jobs, versus protecting a single job that may last a lifetime.

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Supporters of right-to-work laws say they can boost a state’s economy by making wages and salaries more competitive, thus making it easier to attract and retain certain types of jobs. If only high wages were a problem in Wisconsin, that might be so. Wisconsin lags in per capita income pretty much across the board. The goal should be creating more high-wage jobs — not chasing those that pay less.

Most of the existing right-to-work states are in the South, the Great Plains, and the Rocky Mountain regions. About a half-dozen of those states boast strong tech-based sectors, but most economists agree that right-to-work laws are small contributors, at best, even in those states. It’s usually a mix of workforce, tax, regulatory, infrastructure, and other factors that drive state economies forward.

In Wisconsin as elsewhere in the United States, private union membership is on the wane. Passing a right-to-work law may speed that trend, but there are other strategies more likely to help Wisconsin on the higher end of the job and wage scale.

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