What the Right to Work Really Means


South Carolina’s status as a right-to-work state is often credited by government officials as the reason business is attracted to our state. But there’s something troubling about the way they talk about that status. The right to work, many of our elected officials seem to think, isn’t so much a right as an effective “economic development” tool. The fundamental principle underlying right-to-work laws – that government shouldn’t have the authority to tell people how to organize themselves in the private economy – seems to be lost in the rhetoric of “job creation.”

So lost has the principle become, in fact, that some officials and commentators seem to believe that unions are illegal in right-to-work states. They are not. They simply outlaw policies that force people to join unions against their will. The principle, remember, is not that unions are bad, but that government should not empower unions to coerce people into joining.

During National Employee Freedom Week, we’re reminding South Carolinians that employee freedom means a lot more than passing right-to-work laws. It means – or ought to mean – removing government’s power to hinder lawful and productive work. Right-to-work laws are good as far as they go, but South Carolina state government stops citizens from pursuing their work in scores of ways that have little to do with our right-to-work law.

We have, for example, more than 40 occupational licensing boards that exist primarily to hinder South Carolinians from entering the market. Of course, their stated goal is to protect the public. What they actually do is penalize low-income citizens and insulate established businesses from healthy competition. The state also spends hundreds of millions of public dollars every year on government-driven “economic development”: that’s money taken from taxpayers and used for the benefit of companies state officials favor for one reason or another.

The emphasis on “job creation” – as if it’s government’s job to create jobs – has led public officials to forget their responsibility on the private economy. Their responsibility is to foster an environment in which businesses and individuals have the freedom to innovate, and the fullest possible opportunity to create wealth for themselves and others.

The loss of focus has led many, perhaps most, elected officials to pursue policies that favor some companies and industries over others. That’s good for the favored industries or companies, but in the long run bad for just about everyone else.

A few bills proposed in 2015 will illustrate what we mean.

A pair of bills filed in our House of Representatives this year – H.3373 and H.3774 – would have the Board of Technical and Comprehensive Education to collaborate with the Department of Employment and Workforce (DEW), the Commission on Higher Education (CHE), and the Department of Education (DOE), and other alphabet soup agencies to establish a “manufacturing career pathway” for students within the manufacturing sector, and a “construction career pathway” for students in the construction sector. These bills are little more than corporate handouts for companies engaged in the manufacturing or construction sectors. It is not the state’s responsibility to encourage its citizens to pursue certain careers paths, or to provide a steady stream of trained workers for favored industry. Between the Workforce Investment Act and ReadySC, South Carolina already spends roughly $58 million yearly on workforce training with little appreciable effect to the state economy.

Another bill filed this session is even more ambitious. It would create a “Workforce Development Council” comprised of the heads or former heads of many powerful state agencies (Education, Commerce, the technical colleges, DEW, CHE). In addition to gathering a plethora of data and regularly evaluating existing state workforce training, the Council would be charged with creating a state comprehensive plan for workforce training and education, and developing a plan to ensure there is an adequate number of health care workers. The bill, among many other things, would create programs called “Pathways to First Careers” and “Pathways to New Opportunities,” tasked with subsidizing career training programs for students and adults.

These bills fall just shy of direct central planning. What’s truly shocking about them, however, is that they are utterly routine. Bills like this pass every year, and have been passing into law for decades.

While lawmakers may believe they’re doing the right thing by creating countless programs aimed at “job creation,” in practice they are stifling creativity, discouraging innovation, and making entrepreneurship harder. Businesses that can’t afford the steep costs of licensing and regulatory requirements will fail, while larger, more established – and more favored – businesses will flourish. In the end, these policies result in fewer choices for consumers and fewer opportunities for entrepreneurs.

The right not to join a union is a fine thing. But South Carolina has much further to go in pursuit of the freedom to work.

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