What Are Right-to-Work Laws?

The right-to-work law is a fundamental law that allows workers the freedom to choose whether or not to join a union in the workplace. The right-to-work law also makes it optional for employees in unionized workplaces to pay for union dues or other membership fees required for union representation, whether they are in the union or not. Right-to-work is also known as workplace freedom or workplace choice.

Key Takeaways

  • The right-to-work law gives workers the choice of whether or not to join a union.
  • States without right-to-work laws require employees to pay union dues and fees as a term for employment.

Understanding Right-to-Work Laws

In 1935, the National Labor Relations Act (NLRA), or the Wagner Act, was signed into law by President Franklin Roosevelt. The Act protected the rights of employees to create a self-organized organization and mandated employers to engage in collective bargaining and employment negotiations with these self-organized organizations called labor unions. Employees were also compelled to pay the union for representing and protecting their interests. The NLRA required union membership as a condition for employment, thereby restricting employment to union members only.

History of the Right-to-Work Law

President Harry Truman in 1947 amended parts of the NLRA when he passed the Taft-Harley Act. This Act created the current right-to-work law, which allows states to prohibit compulsory membership with a union as a condition for employment in the public and private sectors of the country. Currently, 28 states have passed the right-to-work law, giving employees the choice to associate with union parties. States without right-to-work laws require employees to pay union dues and fees as a term for employment. While labor unions are still fully operative in right-to-work states, the law protects these states’ employees by making payment of union fees an elective decision not bound to the employees’ employment contracts. States that enact the right-to-work laws make mandatory union contracts illegal while giving workers in unionized settings the advantage of benefiting from the terms of a union contract without having to pay dues.

In a bid to protect the Freedom of Association clause, proponents of the right-to-work law agree that workers shouldn’t be obliged to join a union if they are not interested. These supporters believe that states with the right-to-work law attract more businesses than states without. This is because companies would rather function in an environment where workplace disputes or threats of labor strikes would not interrupt their daily business operations. If these companies establish their bases in right-to-work states, workers would also migrate to these states. Advocates of the law agree that right-to-work states have a higher employment rate, after-tax income for employees, population growth, foreign direct investment (FDI), and a lower cost of living than states that have not implemented this law.

Criticisms of Right-to-Work Laws

Critics state that right-to-work state workers earn lower wages compared to the other states. Because right-to-work states have a lower cost of living, employees are paid lower nominal wages than what employees in states without this law are paid. Opponents argue that since federal law requires unions to represent all workers, regardless of whether they pay union dues, free riders are encouraged to benefit from union services at no cost to them. This would increase the cost of operating and maintaining a union organization. In addition, if businesses are given a choice to do without unions, this would lower the safety standards set in place for their employees. By making it harder for unions to operate and represent workers, economic inequality will be exacerbated, and corporate power over employees will increase significantly.

In 2017, Congress also introduced the National Right to Work Act that would give employees nationwide a choice to opt-out of joining or paying dues to unions.