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In ‘Right to Work’ Battle, Narrative Trumps Fact on NPR

Some helpful numbers you'll never hear from government-funded radio.

by
Ray Hartwell

Bio

January 12, 2012 - 12:00 am

On the morning of December 29, I was driving and listening to the radio. A National Public Radio anchor, discussing assorted issues being considered by prospective voters in the New Hampshire primary, described a proposed “right-to-work” law as one that would enable employees to benefit from collective bargaining agreements without having to pay dues to the unions negotiating for them.

No further definition was offered, much less any elaboration of the possible benefits of “right-to-work” laws, which protect workers from compulsory union membership. As a government-subsidized media outlet, and as a fundamental principle of sound journalism, one would think that NPR would seek to report accurately and to avoid embedding political narratives in its ostensibly objective commentary.

On reflection, it seemed to me there must be more to this particular story. So I looked at the NPR website, hopeful that I would readily find that I missed the more balanced analysis somewhere else in the program that morning. What I found, however, was that NPR has a “story” on the right-to-work issue, and by golly they’re sticking to it.

I found the program I had heard in late December, and also a May 24 article about the effort to pass right-to-work legislation in New Hampshire. In the earlier story, NPR defined the right-to-work measure as one that would “forbid union contracts that charge nonmembers a share of collective bargaining costs.”

Now, I think it’s fair to understand “a share of collective bargaining costs” as a reference to union dues. I think it’s also fair to say that union dues do much more than reimburse the costs of collective bargaining for the union members paying them. In fact, a portion of union dues goes to the national organization, where it is spent by union bigwigs whose use of the funds is not really subject to effective auditing. Although NPR overlooked this point, I think there is abundant evidence that union dues often benefit Democratic political candidates more than the workers forced to pay them.

Nevertheless, it was clearly implied by NPR’s statements that union efforts bring benefits to workers superior to those enjoyed by non-union employees. Moreover, NPR further implied that union dues merely reimburse the union for its share of the cost of bargaining for these benefits. If there is another way to look at the issue, I do not think you will find it laid out for you by NPR.

Of course, federally funded NPR is notorious for policing the content of its programming to expunge what it considers to be politically incorrect content. Just ask Juan Williams. So perhaps it’s no surprise, during the reign of this most pro-union administration in memory, that NPR’s stories seem to overlook some facts that the folks listening might actually find of significant interest. (Now, we can check in on NPR’s reporting about Obama’s recess appointments to the National Labor Relations Board, but that’s a subject for another day.)

NPR could have contrasted “right-to-work” states with “forced unionism” states, as proponents of the former might put it. But that contrast was not presented; rather, the premise of the NPR narrative — that workers always benefit from union membership — is not questioned in the stories I sampled. Perhaps it should have been noted that this premise is open to serious question.

Although readily available from sources such as the National Institute for Labor Relations Research, the following facts strike me as unlikely to be reported on NPR:

– private sector employees compensation growth in real dollars during the period 2000-2010 grew by more than 11% annually in right-to-work states, and by less than 1% in “forced unionism” states;

– during the same period, growth in manufacturing GDP (in 2005 dollars) grew by 18.6% in right-to-work states against 8.3% in forced unionism states; and

– private sector employees’ cost-of-living adjusted compensation was actually greater in right-to-work states than in forced unionism states in 2010.

Caveat to NPR listeners about the “right-to-work” issue: there is more to this story than what you’ve heard on NPR. Come to think of it, that’s probably a good assumption to make about any story you hear on NPR.

Ray Hartwell is a partner in the Washington office of a major law firm, where he specializes in competition law and white collar criminal matters. Over the past decade he has also served as a trustee of his alma mater, Washington and Lee University. He is a Vietnam-era Navy veteran, having served as antisubmarine warfare and nuclear weapons officer aboard a guided missile destroyer. His opinion articles have appeared in various publications, including the Washington Times and the Richmond Times-Dispatch.
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