What Is the Right-to-Work Law?

The right-to work-law lets employees get the benefit of union contracts without paying dues and fees to a union. Right-to-work laws let workers join a union if they want, but employers can’t force or make employees join a union as a requirement or condition of employment.

The states covered under right-to-work law include:

  • Alabama
  • Arizona
  • Arkansas
  • Florida
  • Georgia
  • Idaho
  • Indiana
  • Iowa
  • Kansas
  • Kentucky
  • Louisiana
  • Michigan
  • Mississippi
  • Missouri (effective Aug. 28, 2017)
  • Nebraska
  • Nevada
  • North Carolina
  • North Dakota
  • Oklahoma
  • South Carolina
  • South Dakota
  • Tennessee
  • Texas
  • Utah
  • Virginia
  • West Virginia (not currently in effect due to pending litigation)
  • Wisconsin
  • Wyoming

Right-to-work laws vary from state to state, but in general, most employees working for private employers are covered under this law. Workers in the railroad and airline industries are not covered, and most federal employees are also exempt from right-to-work laws. If you are hired in a right-to-work state, then you can be covered under a union contract while not being a member or paying any dues to that union.

In a right-to-work state, employees are still constrained by union contracts, and the union is the employee’s exclusive bargaining agent. If you are contacted by a union organizer about joining a union in a right-to-work state, then you have a legal right to refuse to join the union, and you don’t have to pay membership fees.

The same is true for states without right-to-work laws. You can join a union if you want, and you also have the right to resign membership after joining that union. While right-to-work states do not require all beneficiaries of union contracts to pay dues or be members, the union itself must represent all workers under that contract the same.

Right-to-work laws differ based on each individual state, and may also differ based on whether the job is private sector or public sector. A right-to-work law says that no person can be compelled as a requirement to being employed to join or not to join or to pay dues to a labor union. Section 14(b) of the Taft-Hartley Act affirms the right of states to enact right-to-work laws.

What Is the Right-to-Work Principle?

The Right-to-work principle–the guiding concept of the National Right to Work Legal Defense Foundation–affirms the right of every American to work for a living without being compelled to belong to a union. Compulsory unionism in any form–"union," "closed," or "agency" shop–is a contradiction of the right-to-work principle and the fundamental human right that the principle represents. The National Right to Work Committee advocates that every individual must have the right, but must not be compelled, to join a labor union. The National Right to Work Legal Defense Foundation assists employees who are victimized because of their assertion of that principle.

Is Right-to-Work Anti-Union?

The National Right-to-Work Legal Defense Foundation is focused on individual freedom and is not "anti-union" or "pro-union." The Foundation confirms a right for all Americans to be free of abuses of unions.

Opponents of right-to-work laws say that the laws allow for workers to be freeloaders and to enjoy the benefits of being a union member without paying any of the costs. These benefits include higher wages and job protections.

The National Right-to-Work Legal Defense Foundation and the National Right-to-Work Committee are different and separate organizations, but their work is complementary. The Foundation works solely through the courts to assist employees whose human or civil rights have been violated by abuses of compulsory unionism. The Committee, founded in 1955, lobbies Congress and legislatures to eliminate all forms of forced unions.

How Does Compulsory Unionism Affect Government Policy?

Compulsory unionism is the main issue responsible for the Tax-and-Spend policies of the U.S. Congress. According to Congress: "Under their federally-granted coercive powers, union officials collect some $4.5 billion annually in compulsory dues and funnel much of it into unreported campaign operations to elect and control congressional majorities dedicated to higher taxes and increased government spending.”

What Is Exclusive Representation?

Exclusive representation means special coercive privilege that is provided by federal law and that empowers union officials to represent all employees in a company’s bargaining unit. This compulsory union representation removes from employees, even in right-to-work states, their right to bargain for themselves. In unions, the officials demanded this power, and then they make it their reason to force employees to pay dues for representation the employees do not want.

What Rights Do Employees in Non-Right-to-Work States Have?

Certain rights of employees not covered by a state right-to-work law have been established by U.S. Supreme Court rulings. For example, employees can decide if they want to join a union. Also, a union member can resign their membership if they want. Non-members can only be required to pay for their proportionate part of the union’s proven bargaining costs.

What Effect Does a Right-to-Work Law Have on a State’s Standard of Living?

The National Right-to-Work Committee focused on and brought to light to the fact that right-to-work states enjoy a higher standard of living than non-right-to-work states. Families in right-to-work states, on average, have a bigger after-tax income and higher purchasing power than families living in non-right-to-work states. This was shown in independent studies.

Republicans Want to Pass a National Right-To-Work Law

Right-to-work laws let workers have the option to stop supporting unions while still enjoying the benefits of representation. Republicans who want such laws to be passed control both chambers of Congress and the White House for the first time in years. Republicans and business groups still face a Democratic filibuster in the Senate, “Similar legislation has been introduced in the past, but we believe that this year, the legislation could garner more support than ever before,” Leacy Burke wrote.

Under U.S. labor law, a union must represent all the employees in a workplace it has unionized, even those who may not want to be in a union. Unions argue that it’s only fair for all workers to contribute money to help cover the costs of bargaining. Unions call the phenomenon “free riding.” Supporters of right-to-work laws say no workers should have to support a union, whether it bargains on his behalf or not. Republican lawmakers and business groups have had startling success with right-to-work legislation in the last few years. Twenty-seven states are now right-to-work, and Missouri and New Hampshire could soon be in that group.

Union-dense, Democratic-leaning states on the coasts are unlikely to pass their own right-to-work laws, but a federal statute would override that issue. The passage of a national right-to-work bill would make it law in all states regardless of each state’s own statutes. A Democratic filibuster is currently the only sure firewall against a federal right-to-work law. Even if Democrats can beat back such proposals in Congress, right-to-work may spread anyway thanks to the Supreme Court. Unions narrowly dodged a bullet last year when the case known as Friedrichs died with a split decision following Justice Antonin Scalia’s death. A ruling against unions would effectively make the entire public sector right-to-work throughout the country, regardless of state laws.

GOP Introduces National Right-to-Work Legislation

A national right-to-work legislation would be a major hit to organized labor since that would mean millions of workers could opt out of their union membership for the first time. Reps. Joe Wilson of South Carolina and Steve King of Iowa are sponsoring the legislation, which would amend the National Labor Relations Act and the Railway Labor Act to prohibit what unions call "security clauses." Missouri is expected to adopt similar legislation this month. Union leaders hate the laws, which are associated with declining membership and depleted treasuries as workers take advantage of the opportunity to opt out of membership. Republicans have pushed similar right-to-work legislation in previous Congresses, and Wilson and King introduced a version in 2015.

Breaking Down 'Right-to-Work Law'

Right-to-work laws prohibit labor unions and employers from entering into contracts that only employ unionized workers for the jobs in the contract. Right-to-work laws allow employees to have the benefits of the union contract without having to pay their share of dues and fees to the union. The right-to-work principle–the guiding concept of the National Right to Work Legal Defense Foundation–affirms the right of every American to work for a living without being compelled to belong to a union. When trying to negotiate union contracts, or even organize a union itself, it is important to remember that in states with right-to-work laws, the workers covered under the union contract do not have to be members of the union or pay membership fees.

Most employment rights and labor groups are strongly opposed to right-to-work laws; proponents argue that right-to-work laws simply secure employees’ rights to choose for themselves whether or not to join and/or support a union rather than forcing workers to join as a term of employment. When representing your clients, it is important to understand your state's law and your client's union membership status.

According to the Foundation, "The Foundation affirms the right of all Americans to be free of compulsory unionism abuses.” Compulsory union representation prevents employees, even in right-to-work states, from bargaining for themselves. Employees whose sincere religious beliefs prevent them from joining or paying any money to the union also have special rights. Right-to-work laws make those kinds of deals illegal, allowing workers to opt out of paying fees to a union that will have to represent them anyway.

West Virginia and Kentucky have gone right-to-work since 2012; in Kentucky, it was essentially the first order of business when the GOP assumed full control of the statehouse for the first time in nearly a century. At least 80 percent of Americans are opposed to forcing employees to pay dues as a condition of their employment, and a national bill would protect workers by eliminating the forced-dues clauses in federal statute.

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