The Maine Heritage Policy Center this week released a report it says shows people are fleeing Maine for "right-to-work" states and concludes that Maine should adopt a right-to-work stance — prohibiting unions from charging workers who don't want to become union members — if it wants to boost its economy.
But others say the conservative think tank's analysis is flawed.
"I would doubt one in 1,000 Americans even knows what right-to-work is, much less moved (for it)," said Gordon Lafer, an associate professor at the Labor Education and Research Center at the University of Oregon. "The Maine study says people are voting with their feet. They're not voting. If you look at the reasons for which people move, none of it is because of state labor laws."
The Heritage Policy Center's short report released Monday talks about Oklahoma's experience since it established a right-to-work constitutional amendment in 2001. Twenty-two states have right-to-work laws; Oklahoma's law is the most recent.
According to the report, Oklahoma's manufacturing industry saw a surge in gross domestic product — the value of goods and services — between 2003 and 2010. The report also says Oklahoma struggled to get people to move into the state before it passed its 2001 right-to-work law. But between 2003 and 2008, it gained more than 40,000 people and $99 million in income.
"After right to work passed, it did a 180 and people were moving into the state," said J. Scott Moody, chief economist for the Heritage Policy Center and author of the report.
The report compared where new Mainers were moving from and where former Mainers moved to. Citing IRS statistics, the Heritage Policy Center says Maine lost more than 15,000 households to right-to-work states between 1995 and 2008.
The report concluded that Oklahoma's right-to-work law has been a boon for that state. It said Maine would gain workers and see an improvement in the economy if it became a right-to-work state, too.
"This evidence should help convince Maine policymakers that RTW is, in fact, good economic policy. In particular, RTW would help Maine’s manufacturing sector and reduce Maine’s out-migration to RTW states, among other benefits, providing a timely and cost-free boost to the economy," the report said.
However, Moody backed away Tuesday from the report's assertion that the state would gain workers or improve its economy. He said the report was meant to show only that Maine would become more "economically competitive" under right to work, not that it would add people or jobs, or that it would entice businesses to come here.
"Companies that are here or that start up in the future will have the flexibility, the assurance of flexibility, they need to compete in the global marketplace," Moody said.
He believes companies would gain that flexibility with a growing pool of nonunion workers. He said he also believes manufacturing productivity would increase and pay would increase along with it.
Others, however, disagree.
According to experts, right-to-work proposals and responses to those proposals often break down by party lines. Republicans tend to like right-to-work laws because they can lower union membership. Democrats tend not to like them, also because they tend to lower union membership.
In Maine, Democrats on Tuesday called the Maine Heritage Policy Center's report a "sham" and pointed to national studies disputing claims that right to work would create jobs or help the state. One report they pointed to was Moody's own, co-authored in 2010 for the Oklahoma Council of Public Affairs. In it he shows Oklahoma lost more than 9,000 jobs between 2001, when it became a right-to-work state, and 2008.
"More troubling is that several regional competitors have seen significant in-migration of jobs — some of which were surely former Oklahoma jobs," the report said.
Democrats also point to reports done by the Economic Policy Institute, a Washington, D.C.-based nonprofit that bills itself as non-partisan, though some conservatives say it has a liberal bias. At least one of those reports was done by Lafer.
At the University of Oregon, Lafer has been studying labor and employment issues for 25 years, with a focus on right to work for the past year and a half. He read the Maine Heritage Policy Center's report Monday and had some misgivings.
He said the report's look at Oklahoma's average economic growth rate was meaningless because it didn't factor in other reasons for that growth, such as a surge in the state's major industries: oil and gas. He said the report assumes people are moving into Oklahoma and out of Maine because of their right-to-work stances, but the report provides no evidence to back that up.
Lafer said the report also assumes manufacturers will move to Maine if the state changes its right-to-work stance, but an industry survey by Area Development magazine shows that isn't likely.
"It's totally nonpolitical, it's a magazine of the site location industry. And they do a survey of employers, it's weighted toward small manufacturers . . . and they ask them, 'What are the factors that affect your location decision?' Last year, right to work ranked 16th," Lafer said. "The things that ranked higher are what I think makes sense when you think about it: How close am I to my suppliers or customers? How close am I to a major highway or rail line or port, or whatever you need? What's the cost of construction? What's the cost of real estate? What's the tax structure of the state?"
Under federal law, workers cannot be forced to join a union as a condition of their employment. In Maine, unions can charge a worker for the services the union provides, such as contract negotiation or dispute resolution, even if that worker doesn't want to be an actual member of the union. In a right-to-work state, unions cannot charge a worker at all if that worker doesn't want to join the union.
Moody said he knew nothing about the federal law.
"I'm not sure what that pertains to," he said.