Labor unions exist to protect workers from employment-related problems like workplace discrimination, unfair wages, and unlawful termination. However, not every worker is willing or able to join a labor union, and this can cause contention between the involved parties. Do workers have the right not to join a union and pay union fees? Can they still get hired to work for a firm? Right to Work Laws cover these matters and protect the rights of non-union workers under state and federal laws. Let’s take a closer look at what they are, what they cover, and how they relate to workers.
What Is a Right-to-Work Law?
Right to work laws are legislations that give employees the freedom of choosing whether or not they will join a workplace labor union. These laws protect workers in unionized firms from having to pay membership fees and other union fees to get union representation. In some instances, they are referred to as workplace choice or workplace freedom laws. There are currently 27 states that have active right to work laws. In these states, workers do not need to join labor unions to get or maintain a job. There is no federal right to work law, and it only applies in states that elect to enact it. If a state does not have these laws, workers must pay union fees and dues as a term for employment. This is not to say that labor unions do not exist in states with right to work laws. But while they do, according to National Right to Work Legal Defense Foundation, joining and making payments to them is optional and not bound to employment contracts.
History of Right to Work Laws
President Franklin Roosevelt signed the Wagner Act or the National Labor Relations Act (NLRA) into law in 1935, according to government archives. The act protected the right of workers to create self-organized unions – labor unions – and required employers to engage in employment negotiations and collective bargaining with these unions. In return for representation and interest protection, employees were also required to pay these unions. The act also made union membership a term for employment, effectively restricting employment to union members. This meant that non-union members could not get a job in unionized workplaces. However, in 1947, President Harry Truman passed the Taft-Hartley Act and amended parts of the Wagner Act. This Act made union membership optional and prohibited it from being used as a requirement for employment in both the private and public sectors. The Taft-Hartley Act gave rise to right to work laws as we know them today. It was followed up by the re-introduction of the National Right to Work Act by Congress in February 2021, which could give workers across the country the choice of not joining a union and paying dues. In March of the same year, the House of Representatives passed a PRO Act called the Protecting the Right to Organize Act, which, if passed, would override right to work laws. The Act has not gained much ground in the Senate since most Republicans oppose it.
Employee Rights Under Right to Work Laws
Essentially, employees living and working in states with right to work laws do not need to join and pay dues to labor unions to get employed. State right to work laws cover some worker rights while others are established by Supreme Court rulings. In some states, union members can resign their union memberships, and non-members can pay only a portion of a labor union’s costs. Such non-members are protected from pressure to pay any unstated or unexplained union costs. They also have the right to challenge these costs on several grounds, including their sincere religious beliefs. In most cases, employers like right to work laws because they reduce union aggression. The laws are also believed to reduce unemployment and stimulate business investment.
Federal and State Right to Work Laws
Right to work laws have a somewhat misleading name and can lead to confusion. While the term sounds like it refers to an employee’s right to have or keep a job, it actually only relates to labor union memberships. More than half the states in the US have enacted these laws that:
1. Protect workers from being compelled to join a labor union and pay union fees as a term of employment.
2. Prohibit employment contracts that allow the hiring of unionized employees only.
3. Uphold the right of every worker to join a labor union while maintaining that they cannot be pressured to do so.
Right to work laws exist at both the federal and state levels. The Taft-Hartley Act, enacted in 1947, is a federal law that prohibits employers from only hiring union members. Additionally, the law requires that an employer get majority approval from all workers before requiring that a non-union member join a union within a set number of days from their hire. It also prevents labor unions from engaging in political campaigns. At the state level, the specific protections offered by right to work laws will vary from one state to the next. Nonetheless, all states with these laws provide employees with remedies for violation by unions or employers, including injunctive relief, monetary damages, and civil enforcements. Some states even allow for criminal penalties for right to work law violations.
States with Right to Work Laws
Section 14(b) of the NLRA gives individual states the right to enact right to work laws. According to the National Conference of State Legislatures (NCSL), the following states have done so already:
- West Virginia
- South Dakota
- South Carolina
- North Dakota
- North Carolina
Employees in these states can join labor unions if they wish to and pay union dues. However, whether or not an employee is unionized, they are protected under a collective bargaining agreement. Employers in these states can also not include union membership as a requirement in employment contracts or coerce their workers to join unions.
Pros of Right to Work Laws
Supporters of right to work laws maintain that employees should not be forced to join labor unions if they are not interested. They believe that states with these laws attract more businesses than those without because companies prefer to operate in environments where labor strike threats and workplace disputes cannot interrupt the day to day running of the company. Moreover, proponents of right to work laws agree that states with these regulations have a lower cost of living, higher after-tax income for workers, and higher employment rates. They argue the following benefits of right to work laws:
- Anti-Corruption: Like any other organization, labor unions should only receive compensation from the people they serve and for the services they offer. Right to work laws prevent them from extorting additional compensation from unwilling members.
- Freedom: Right to work laws give employees the option of whether or not to join a labor union. This means that they can join a union when they wish to and be protected from coercion if they do not.
- Equality: Under right to work laws, all employees are treated equally and have equal rights, whether or not they belong to a union. Without these regulations, non-union employees may lack some protections, including the right to get and keep a job.
Cons of Right to Work Laws
Opponents of right to work laws maintain that workers in states with these laws earn lower wages than those working in states without the laws. They argue that because federal law requires labor unions to represent all employees, including those who do not pay union dues, some workers can benefit from union services without paying for them. Consequently, free riding can increase the cost of running and maintaining a labor union organization. Additionally, critics of right to work laws say that when companies are allowed to operate without unions, they can be tempted to lower the safety standards put in place for their workers. This can lead to unsafe working conditions for employees. According to right to work law detractors, these regulations also make it difficult for labor unions to operate and represent employees, which can exacerbate economic equality. They also argue that this state of affairs can significantly increase the corporate power firms hold over workers. Here is an overview of the cons of right to work laws:
1. Insufficient Health Insurance
Over the years, labor unions have played a crucial role in promoting improved health insurance coverage for employees, increased wages, and other benefits. Right to work laws limit the ability of unions to perform this function, robbing employees of the bargaining power they need to deal with insurance providers.
2. Decreased Unionization
Labor unions are designed to defend and bargain on behalf of employees that have been subjected to low wages in exchange for employment, unsafe working conditions, or unlawful termination. Since the right to work laws allow members not to join unions, they can negatively affect labor union membership numbers. They can also lead to decreased unionization across many industries.
3. Non-Union Members Joyride
As mentioned, the federal act requires that labor unions negotiate for improved working conditions, increased wages and benefits, and other perks for all workers, whether or not they are union members. This means that non-union members who do not pay union dues get to joyride on the same benefits accorded to paying union members.
The Right to Work Law Debate
Right to work laws continue to be a source of contention between proponents and critics of the legislation. More than half of the states in the country have enacted this law, which significantly impacts employment contracts and how labor unions and employers interact with workers. Some people agree with the freedoms afforded to employees by the laws while others oppose it. People who support right to work laws mainly argue on freedom and personal choice. They maintain that workers should never be forced to join a labor union and pay union dues and fees if they do not want to. Overall, they maintain that the worker should decide whether joining a union works for them. On the other hand, opponents of right to work laws consider them ‘anti-union.’ According to this group, making union membership optional harms labor unions by lowering union numbers and decreasing their bargaining power. They argue that these laws reduce the protection offered to workers by labor unions, leading to lower benefits and wages and unsafe working conditions. Furthermore, opponents of right to work laws argue that they allow other workers to joyride on the contributions of union members. Non-union members are not required to pay labor dues yet they are accorded the same protections as paying members. All in all, whether or not you support right to work laws will come down to how you view labor unions and the functions they play in the workplace.
Right to Work Laws and Termination
As already established, right to work laws allow workers to get employed in companies without being unionized or joining a union. But since labor unions exist in part to protect employees from unlawful termination, does this mean that non-union workers can be fired for any reason? Right to work laws protect a worker’s right to engage in meaningful employment without having to pay union dues but do not negate their rights under state and federal law. Unless the employment is at-will, your employer cannot terminate you without cause or for a discriminatory reason simply because you do not belong to a union. If they do, you can file an unlawful termination suit against them.
Right to Work Laws give workers the choice of not joining a labor union if they do not want to. If a state has these laws in place, employees do not need to pay union fees and dues as a term for employment. People who support these laws argue that workers should not be forced to join unions to get a job while critics maintain that the laws accord non-union workers the same rights as union workers even though they do not pay union dues. At the end of the day, whether or not you agree with these laws, how they affect you will depend on the legislation in your state so always consult an attorney before proceeding.