Taft-Hartley Act

Paragraph 1

The Taft-Hartley Act, passed by the United States Congress in 1947, gave states the power to enact “right-to-work” legislation that prohibits union shop agreements. According to such an agreement, a labor union negotiates wages and working conditions for all workers in a business, and all workers are required to belong to the union.

Since 1947, 20 states have adopted right-to-work laws. Much of the literature concerning right-to-work laws implies that such legislation has not actually had a significant impact. This point of view, however, has not gone uncriticized. Thomas M. Carroll has proposed that the conclusions drawn by previous researchers are attributable to their myopic focus on the premise that, unless right-to-work laws significantly reduce union membership within a state, they have no effect.

Carroll argues that the right-to-work laws “do matter” in that such laws generate differences in real wages across states. Specifically, Carroll indicates that while right-to-work laws may not “destroy” unions by reducing the absolute number of unionized workers, they do impede the spread of unions and thereby reduce wages within right-to-work states.

Because the countervailing power of unions is weakened in right-to-work states, manufacturers and their suppliers can act collusively in competitive labor markets, thus lowering wages in the affected industries.

Paragraph 2

Such a finding has important implications regarding the demographics of employment and wages in right-to-work states. Specifically, if right-to-work laws lower wages by weakening union power, minority workers can be expected to suffer a relatively greater economic disadvantage in right-to-work states than in union shop states.

This is so because, contrary to what was once thought, unions tend to have a significant positive impact on the economic position of minority workers, especially Black workers, relative to White workers. Most studies concerned with the impact of unionism on the Black worker’s economic position relative to theWhite worker’s have concentrated on the changes in Black wages due to union membership.

That is, they have concentrated on union versus nonunion wage differentials within certain occupational groups. In a pioneering study, however, Ashenfelter finds that these studies overlook an important fact: although craft unionism increases the differential between the wages of White workers and Black workers due to the traditional exclusion of minority workers from unions in the craft sectors of the labor market, strong positive wage gains are made by Black workers within industrial unions.

In fact, Ashenfelter estimates that industrial unionism decreases the differential between the wages of Black workers and White workers by about 3 percent. If state right-to-work laws weaken the economic power of unions to raise wages, Black workers will experience a disproportionate decline in their relative wage positions. Black workers in right-to-work states would therefore experience a decline in their relative economic positions unless there is strong economic growth in right-to-work states, creating labor shortages and thereby driving up wages.

Topic and Scope:

“Right-to-work” legislation; specifically, the impact of such laws on the wages of minority workers.

Purpose and Main Idea:

The author’s purpose is to examine a variety of studies, many of them in disagreement, about how (and indeed whether) right-to-work laws have impacted wages. This is done more in the manner of a survey than an argument; hence, the “main idea” is little more than the general statement in lines that studies like Carroll’s (and the “pioneering” one of Ashenfelter) have “important implications,” most notably that Black workers’ wages may be depressed by right-to-work laws.

Paragraph Structure:

Paragraph 1 begins by describing what “right-to-work” is: a reaction to unionshop agreements that force everyone to become a member. In a state with right-to-work laws, a worker need not join a union. Lines 9 and on switch to the impact of such laws, and the view that that impact is negligible “has not gone uncriticized,” notably by Carroll. He asserts that right-to-work hurts workers not directly but indirectly, by weakening union bargaining power and hence lowering wages.

Paragraph 2 shifts the focus to demographics, specifically to minority workers, whom the author believes may be hurt more in right-to-work states than in states having a union shop, since unions tend to have a positive impact on minority wages. Lines in 2nd paragraph are where the passage gets most torturous, and where you the reader have to be careful to get the gist of what’s going on and not get discouraged if the specifics seem to elude you.

A good strategy may be to start with the “pioneering” Ashenfelter—i.e. someone the author likes; get a sense of his view, and then figure out what Ashenfelter is reacting against. Here the scope narrows even further, to compare two types of unions. Craft unions, Ashenfelter finds, have tended to exclude Blacks, and thus White craftspeople tend to make more than Black craftspeople; but things are very different in industrial unions, where Blacks’ and Whites’ wages tend to be much closer.

All of this should make clearer what’s going on. Instead of comparing union vs. nonunion wages, Ashenfelter (and our author) imply, we are wiser to compare the impact of right-to-work on different types of unions. If we do so, the passage implies, we will see that the author’s indirect and tentative confirmation to the scenario posed is Yes, Black unionized workers are likely to do better, and Black workers in right-to-work states are generally going to be hurt economically—unless, as we see at the very end, the economy in general improves, thus creating a general demand for labor.

The Big Picture:

Section Management strategies should always be in the forefront of your mind. How did many test-takers decide that this was a good passage to hold for later? It’s long. It’s boring (no offense to labor law buffs). It begins in a heavily factual way; the author’s views don’t appear early. Most of the passage is devoted to a factual recounting of the views of others; the author is only occasionally present, and the author’s main idea is ambiguous, at best. Finally, new concepts are introduced right up until the final sentence; economic growth, labor shortages—it just never seems to end. . . For these reasons, the reading challenge in this one is tougher for examinees than, say, Passages 2 and 3 in this section.

You must begin every passage, especially a thorny one like this, with a solid foundation, which means the opening 1/3 of text. Take your time! Read and think about and paraphrase the opening sentences carefully. (In this passage, for instance, it was critical that you understood what “right-to-work” is, and what the pro and con issues are, before proceeding further.) If you go for a mere “skim,” you’re likely to need one or more time-consuming re-readings later on, in order to get a handle on what’s what. Spending time thinking about the opening 1/3, in fact, saves time.

Don’t lose sight of the passage’s scope as it moves—or in this case, crawls—along. Especially note places in which the author explicitly narrows the scope, such as here, when he moves from right-to-work’s impact on workers in general in paragraph 1 to its impact on minority workers in paragraph 2

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