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Your Rights
Right to Work Laws

What is a right to work law?

Right to Work Laws address situations related to memberships in labor unions; you never need to join a union or pay union dues to be hired or to work for a company. Commonly, these laws involve employers refusing to hire non-union workers or requiring that workers join a union as a condition of employment. This behavior is illegal because people have the "right to work" without being part of a union under state and federal laws.

Do Right to Work Laws affect public or private sector employers?

Right to work laws apply to all public-sector unions (both state and federal) and have also been enacted in 28 states.

I’ve heard that my state has a ‘Right-to-Work’ law. What does that mean?

In the public-sector union context, right-to-work laws mean that union members do not have to pay union dues to be members of the union.

In states that have enacted right-to-work laws that apply to private employers, although they vary based on state law, most Right-to-Work laws prohibit labor unions and employers from entering into contracts that only employ unionized workers for the jobs in the contract. This allows employees to receive the benefits of the union contract without having to pay their share of dues and fees to the union. Essentially, these states allow workers to join a union if they wish, but employers cannot force or compel employees to join a union as a term or condition of employment.

In 1947, the Taft-Hartley Act was passed which prohibited arrangements where employers agree to hire only unionized workers. The act allows for “union shops,” which are arrangements in the workplace that require employees to join a particular union within a certain time-frame after they are hired. However, Taft Hartley created an exception to the “union shops” rule that allows for individual states to pass laws prohibiting union shops. These laws are now referred to as “Right-to-Work” laws.

In states without Right-to-Work laws, the workers covered by a union contract can refuse to join the union and then pay the fees associated with the workplace bargaining. States with Right-to-Work laws require union contracts to cover all workers, not just the ones who are members of the union.

This problem can reduce the union’s bargaining strength, which ultimately results in lower wages and benefits.

Contrary to what proponents of Right-to-Work legislation have said in the past, non-Right-to-Work states do not force employees to unionize; this is strictly prohibited by federal law.

Does my state have ‘Right-to-Work’ laws?

See the National Right to Work Legal Foundation information on which states have right-to-work laws.


Who is covered under 'Right-to-Work' laws?

Right to work laws vary from state to state but generally most employees working for private employers are covered along with public-sector unions. Workers in the railroad and airline industries are not covered.

Where can I expect to encounter ‘Right-to-Work’ laws in the workplace?

  • Public-Sector Jobs: right to work laws apply to all public-sector unions, so if you work in a state or federal government position, you are no longer obligated to pay union dues to be a part of the union.
  • When Being Hired for a Job: When being hired in a Right-to-Work state, you can be covered under a union contract and not be a member or pay any fees to that union. In a Right-to-Work state or in the public-sector, just as in states without these laws, employees are still bound by the union contract and the union is the employee’s exclusive bargaining agent.
  • When Being Contacted by a Union Organizer: When being contacted by a union organizer about joining a union in a Right-to-Work state or in the public-sector, it is your legal right to refuse to join the union or pay membership fees. The same is true for states without Right-to-Work laws. You have the right to join a union, and you also have the right to resign membership after joining that union.
  • When Trying to Organize a Union or Negotiate a Union Contract: If you are 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. Therefore, you can expect to find workers wanting to have a union contract without wanting to pay union dues and membership fees. This could potentially lead to fewer members and funds for unions. 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.
  • When Union Dues Are Deducted from Your Paycheck: If you are covered under a union contract in a Right-to-Work state or in the public-sector, you are not required to pay dues. If you were never a union member, you should contact the union and your employer about the fees being deducted since you are not required to pay them. If you are a union member and no longer want to be, you have the right to resign your membership. If you choose to do this, you should notify the union that you do not want to pay dues. However, depending on what dues you have agreed to you may still have to pay some fees after resigning your membership.

Are 'Right to Work' states "Anti-Union"?

Although 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. Opponents of Right-to-Work laws consider those laws to enable workers to be freeloaders, to enjoy the benefits of being a union member such as higher wages and job protections, but without paying any of the costs of collective bargaining.

In a recent case, Janus v. AFSCME, the Supreme Court ruled that public-sector employees do not have to pay union fees to unions to cover the cost of collective bargaining.

Proponents of the Janus case argue that bargaining with government is inherently political. Any negotiation made with the government in terms of wages and benefits are political decisions on how much to compensate public employees. The stance adopted by the union may not reflect the political positions of its members, and forcing the employees to support the position of the union is a violation of their First Amendment rights. Proponents also argue that money is fungible, and dollars once designated for non-political purposes may end up being used for political purposes, which is a further violation of the First Amendment freedoms of union members.

Opponents of the Janus case argue that public-sector union membership and revenues will be greatly affected, and the decision will lead to “free-rider” issues where members can enjoy the benefits of collective bargaining without having to pay any of the dues associated with the union. The resulting effect of a decrease in revenues could mean lower pay and benefits for public-sector employees.

What if I’m an employment/labor attorney in a ‘Right-to-Work’ state?

Right-to-Work laws differ based on each individual state, and also differ based on whether the job is private sector or public-sector. It is important when representing your clients to understand your state's law and your client's union membership status. 

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