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'Right to Work' Laws: Overview and State Guide

There are many controversial issues surrounding labor laws in general—unions in particular. Some believe unions help improve working conditions and wages for everyone, while others think unions wield too much power and stifle economic growth.

Perspectives like these shape arguments regarding state right to work laws, which limit what unions and employers can require of workers in their state. Regardless of your position on unions and labor laws, it’s helpful to know what the right to work laws are where you live and in neighboring states.

Unions often represent all workers in a bargaining unit, regardless of whether they are union members or not. As a result, unions often try to persuade employers to sign contracts that require all workers to pay fees to the union as a condition of employment. Over half of the states have right to work laws which prohibit employers and labor organizations from requiring non-union employees to pay these fees. Many states’ right to work laws also include language states that unions and employers may not require membership in a labor organization as a condition of employment.

This article outlines what to know about right-to-work laws. You will also find a table at the end that summarizes right-to-work laws by state. States with right-to-work laws also link out to specific statutes. 

Who Do 'Right-to-Work' Laws Protect?

Right-to-work laws protect non-union employees. The protection is available to workers who choose to maintain or accept a position in a union shop even though they are not in the union.

The government passed these laws because unions were charging non-union employees membership dues. They argued that non-union workers benefited from the work of union leaders.

Workers challenged this practice, arguing that they shouldn't have to pay union dues if they aren't in the union. Further, they specifically chose not to be in a union. The union leaders can't unilaterally decide to charge these employees for services they expressly declined.

The Basics of Union Representation

Under existing law, employees, as a group, can choose to have a union represent them in their relationship with their employer. Such representation often leads to a collective bargaining agreement spelling out the terms and conditions of that employment.

In return for its services, the union seeks dues from the employees covered by the agreement. Before right-to-work laws, unions would demand payment from non-union employees because they enjoyed the benefits of new labor agreements.

Some of the issues a union representative negotiates on behalf of employees include the following:

  • Wages
  • Benefits
  • Hours
  • Overtime
  • Health benefits
  • Tuition reimbursement
  • Legal representation
  • Other working conditions

One problem with having a union negotiating these issues is that there are frequently employees covered by the agreement who don't want to belong to the union or pay union dues.

The interests of these employees have led to the development of so-called right-to-work laws.

The Debate Over Right-to-Work Laws

People still debate the merits of right-to-work laws. Those favoring the right to work see the issue as a matter of personal choice and freedom. They argue that every worker should be able to choose to join a union or not.

Some even view it through a constitutional lens. These people believe that all workers are free to associate (or not associate) with a union. They also have the freedom to choose whether to pay union dues.

Those opposed to right-to-work laws see them as anti-union. Because federal law already prohibits compulsory union membership, some argue that state right-to-work legislation serves no other purpose than to harm unions.

Opponents argue that right-to-work laws weaken unions' bargaining strength, lowering workers' wages and benefits. Some feel it's unfair that these laws allow employees to benefit from unions without contributing to the unions' expenses.

Right-to-Work Laws Don't Prevent Your Employer From Firing You

Right-to-work laws protect you from having to pay union dues. It doesn't prevent your employer from firing you. More than 75% of Americans are at-will employment states. Companies can terminate at-will employees for any reason and at any time.

If your employer wants to fire you because you're demanding they enforce the local right-to-work laws, they will find a way to fire you. If this happens, you have the option of filing a wrongful termination lawsuit. If you decide to pursue this, you'll want to consult an employment attorney.

State and Federal Right-to-Work Laws

The U.S. Supreme Court has long held that employees don't have to join a union to obtain or keep a job covered by a collective bargaining agreement. People commonly refer to these jobs as “union jobs."

According to the Supreme Court, a union can't force an employee to pay the union dues required for union membership. But these court decisions have provided that unions could require that all employees pay an “agency fee" or “fair share" payment.

These payments represent the portion of union dues that represents the union's costs of collective bargaining, contract administration, and grievance handling. For most unions, agency fees are less than the full union dues. But these fees aren't always significantly lower.

Because of this less-than-satisfactory solution, more than half of state laws support employees' right-to-work laws. Under these laws, companies and union leaders can't force an employee to join a union or pay union dues and agency fees to obtain or hold a job with a union employer.

While the specifics of these laws vary from state to state, all states offer remedies for violations. These remedies may include:

  • Civil enforcement
  • Money damages
  • Injunctive relief (a court-ordered remedy requiring a party to do or refrain from specific acts to prevent harm or resolve a legal dispute)

Some statutes even provide for criminal penalties.

In a 2018 Supreme Court case, Janus v. AFSCME, the Court held that employers and unions can't force a public employee to be a union member. The Court also agreed that non-union workers don't have to pay union dues or agency fees as a condition of employment.

This decision, which applies to all federal, state, and local government employees, effectively made every state a right-to-work state. But these cases only apply to the public sector.

Regardless of where an employee's rights come from, they must notify the union that they wish to be free from union membership, dues, and agency fees. The union bears the responsibility of complying with the employee's decision.

If a union leader or employer requires you to join a union or pay union dues, contact an employment law attorney immediately. These dues can get expensive. The more time that goes by, the harder it'll be for you to recover your money.

'Right-To-Work' Laws: A Brief Timeline

State legislatures in Arizona and Florida passed the first right-to-work laws in 1944. Arizona and Nebraska followed suit just two years later. The timeline of when the other states passed these laws is as follows:

  • 1947 - Virginia, Tennessee, North Carolina, Georgia, Iowa, South Dakota, Texas
  • 1948 - North Dakota
  • 1952 - Nevada
  • 1953 - Alabama
  • 1954 - Mississippi, South Carolina
  • 1955 - Utah
  • 1958 - Kansas
  • 1963 - Wyoming
  • 1976 - Louisiana
  • 1985 - Idaho
  • 2001 - Oklahoma
  • 2012 - Indiana
  • 2013 - Michigan (later repealed in February 2024)
  • 2015 - Wisconsin
  • 2016 - West Virginia

States that aren't on this list do not have right-to-work laws. Whether you live in a state with these laws or not, it's best to ask an employment attorney for help. A lot is on the line and you don't want to risk handling this alone.

Congress and the state legislatures passed right-to-work laws because various labor unions were gouging non-union workers for large amounts of money. These laws dictate that people can work without paying dues to a union. They also have the right to maintain their current jobs and seek promotions without joining a union.

Here, we'll discuss what these right-to-work laws mean for private employees. We'll also briefly explain what to do if your employer or the union at your company violates your right to work.

Get Legal Advice About Right-to-Work Laws

Does your job have a labor organization running contract negotiations? If so, you have the final say in joining that union. This is the case if you work in the public or private sector. If the union leaders at your company have forced you to pay dues, you should contact an employment lawyer immediately.

Your attorney will identify the labor laws that apply to your case. It all depends on your state laws and the industry you work in. It also depends on various factors, such as the nature and extent of your harm.

If you believe your employer or union leader violated your rights as a worker, contact a local employment law attorney. Most firms offer a free initial consultation. This allows you to discuss your case with someone familiar with right-to-work laws. 

Table of State 'Right-to-Work' Laws

Some states have had right to work statutes since the 1940s, while others only recently passed such laws. The table below lists and describes the key statutes for each of the states that currently have right-to-work laws.

Law on Union Fees

Law on Union Membership

Remedy for Violation

State Statutes

Alabama

Payment of dues or fees to a union cannot be a condition of employment.

Union membership cannot be a condition of employment. Employer cannot prohibit union membership.

Employee may recover damages caused by violation of right to work laws.

§25-7-30 et seq.25-7-1 et seq.

Alaska

Not a right to work state

     

Arizona

N/A

No one can be denied work due to non-membership in a union. Cannot threaten or force someone to join union, participate in strike, or leave employment. Cannot encourage others not to work with non-members.

May sue for damages and injunctive relief for violation of right to work laws.

§23-1301 et seq.

Arkansas

No one can be forced to pay dues to a labor organization as condition of employment, unless agreed to in writing.

No one can be denied employment because of membership or non-membership in union

Violation amounts to a misdemeanor punishable by a fine between $100 and $5,000 per day.

Ark. Const. Amend. 34§11-3-301 et seq.

California

Not a right to work state

     

Colorado

Not a right to work state

     

Connecticut

Not a right to work state

     

Delaware

Not a right to work state

     

District of Columbia

Not a right to work state

     

Florida

N/A

Right to work may not be denied or abridged due to membership or non-membership in labor organization. May not deny employment or discriminate against person for membership or non-membership in labor organization.

Violation punishable as second degree misdemeanor. May sue for damages, injunctive relief, attorneys’ fees, and possibly punitive damages.

Fl. Const. Art. 1 §6§447.01 et seq.

Georgia

No individual can be required to pay any fee to a labor organization as a condition of employment.

Unlawful to compel person to join or refrain from joining a labor organization, or to strike or refrain from striking. Membership in labor organization may not be condition of employment.

Injunctive relief, damages, costs, and attorneys’ fees recoverable for voidable contracts. Violations punishable as a misdemeanor.

§34-6-6 et seq.34-6-22 et seq.

Hawaii

Not a right to work state

     

Idaho

No person can be required to pay dues, fees or other charges to a labor or other organization as a condition of employment, unless agreed to in writing.

Cannot require membership, non-membership, or approval by labor organization as condition of employment.

Violations punishable as a misdemeanor with a fine not more than $1000, or prison for not more than 90 days. May sue for injunctive relief and damages including costs and attorneys’ fees.

§44-2001 et seq.

Illinois

Not a right to work state

     

Indiana

Person may not require individual to pay dues, fees, etc. to labor or other organization as condition of employment.

Person may not require individual to become or remain member of labor organization.

Violation may be punished as Class A misdemeanor. May sue for actual and consequential damages or liquidated damages not more than $1,000; costs and attorneys’ fees; injunctive relief.

§22-6-6-1 et seq.

Iowa

May not require payment of dues, fees, etc. to labor organization as prerequisite or condition of employment.

May not refuse employment because of membership or non-membership in labor organization.

Violation punishable as a serious misdemeanor. May seek injunctive relief.

§731 et seq.

Kansas

Employer may not deduct labor organization dues from employee paycheck without written authorization.

No one can be denied employment due to membership or non-membership in labor organization. Membership in union cannot be a prerequisite to employment.

May sue for actual damages and attorneys’ fees within one year. Injunctive relief available.

Kan. Const. Art. 15 §12§44-802 et seq.44-808 et seq.44-831

Kentucky

May not require payment of fees to labor organization or deduct dues from paycheck without written consent.

May not require membership in labor organization as condition of employment.

Violation may be punished as a Class A misdemeanor. May sue for damages and injunctive relief.

House Bill 1 to amend §336.130 et seq.

Louisiana

No person shall be required to pay any dues, fees, etc. to a labor organization as a condition of employment.

No person shall be required to become or remain a member of a labor organization as a condition of employment.

May sue for injunctive relief and damages. Violation may be punished as a misdemeanor subject to a fine of up to $1,000 and/or imprisonment for up to 90 days.

§23-981 et seq.

Maine

Not a right to work state

     

Maryland

Not a right to work state

     

Massachusetts

Not a right to work state

     

Michigan

Not a right to work state

 

 

 

Minnesota

Not a right to work state

     

Mississippi

No person can be required to pay labor organization dues or fees as a condition of employment.

No person can be required to become, remain, or abstain from membership in a labor organization as a condition of employment.

May sue for actual damages. Violations may be punished as a misdemeanor with a fine of between $25 and $250 per day.

Miss. Const. Art. 7 §198A; §71-1-4771-1-53

Missouri

No person shall be required to pay any dues to a labor organization as a condition of employment.

No person shall be required to become, remain, or refrain from becoming a member of a labor organization as a condition of employment.

Violation punishable as a class C misdemeanor. May sue for injunctive relief, damages, costs, and attorneys’ fees.

SB 19 to amend Ch. 290

Montana

Not a right to work state

     

Nebraska

No person shall be denied employment because of refusal to pay a fee directly or indirectly to a labor organization.

No person shall be denied employment because of membership or non-membership in a labor organization.

Violations may be punishable as a class IV misdemeanor with a fine of up to $500.

Neb. Const. Art. XV, §13 et seq.; §48-217 et seq.; 48-82481-138628-106

Nevada

N/A

No person shall be denied opportunity to obtain or retain employment because of non-membership in labor organization.

May sue for damages for violations of right to work laws. Injunctive relief available. Violations punishable as misdemeanor.

§613.230 et seq.; 613.130288.140

New Hampshire

Not a right to work state

     

New Jersey

Not a right to work state

     

New Mexico

Not a right to work state

     

New York

Not a right to work state

     

North Carolina

No employer shall require any person to pay dues, fees, etc. to a labor organization as a condition of employment.

Non-members of a labor organization shall not be denied the right to work. Membership may not be a condition of employment.

May sue for damages sustained as a result of violation of right to work laws.

§95-78 et seq.

North Dakota

A nonunion employee may not be compelled to pay expenses incurred by labor organization in course of general collective bargaining.

Right of person to work may not be denied or abridged on account of membership or non-membership in labor organization.

N/A

§34-01-14 et seq.; 34-11.1-01 et seq.

Ohio

Not a right to work state

     

Oklahoma

No person shall be required, as a condition of employment, to pay any dues, etc. to a labor organization.

No person shall be required, as a condition of employment, to become or remain a member of a labor organization.

Violation punishable as a misdemeanor.

Okla. Const. Art. 23 §1A

Oregon

Not a right to work state

     

Rhode Island

Not a right to work state

     

South Carolina

May not require payment of fees, etc. to a labor organization as a condition of employment.

May not require membership or non-membership in labor organization as a condition of employment.

Violation is punishable as a misdemeanor with imprisonment between 10 and 30 days, and/or a fine of between $1,000 and $10,000 for each offense. May sue for injunctive relief, actual damages, costs, attorneys’ fees, treble and punitive damages.

§41-7-10 et seq.

South Dakota

Unions and employers are not authorized to require payment of fees in lieu of membership in a labor organization as a condition of employment.

The right of persons to work shall not be denied or abridged on account of membership or non-membership in a labor organization. Employers and unions are not authorized to require membership as a condition of employment.

Violations amount to a Class 2 misdemeanor punishable by 30 days’ imprisonment and/or $500 fine.

S.D. Const. Art. 6 §2§60-8-1 et seq.; 60-9A-143-18-1 et seq.22-6-2

Tennessee

Unlawful to exclude from employment any person for their failure to pay dues, fees, etc. to a labor organization.

Unlawful to deny or attempt to deny employment because of a person’s membership or non-membership in a labor organization.

Violations amount to a Class A misdemeanor.

§50-1-201 et seq.49-5-601 et seq.

Texas

Labor organization may not demand fee from non-member as a condition of employment. Employer may not deduct fee from paycheck without employee’s written consent.

A person may not be denied employment based on membership or non-membership in a labor union.

Certain violations punishable with civil penalty of up to $1,000, and an injunction. Certain violations also punishable as misdemeanor with fine of up to $500, confinement for up to 60 days, or both. May sue for damages.

101.003 et seq.; 101.051 et seq.; 101.111101.301 et seq.; 617.004

Utah

No employer shall require any person to pay dues, fees, etc. to any labor organization as a condition of employment.

No person shall be denied the right to work on account of membership or non-membership in any labor organization.

May sue for injunctive relief and damages. Violations constitute a misdemeanor.

Utah Code, Title 34, Ch 34

Vermont

Not a right to work state

     

Virginia

No employer shall require any person, as a condition of employment to pay any dues, fees, etc. to any labor organization.

Unlawful to deny employment on account of non-membership in a labor organization, or to make membership a condition of employment.

May sue for injunctive relief and damages of any character. Violations constitute a misdemeanor.

§40.1-58 et seq.

Washington

Not a right to work state

     

West Virginia

May not require a person to pay any dues, fees, etc. to a union as a condition of employment.

May not require person to become or remain a member of a union as a condition of employment.

May sue for damages.

§21-1A-3 et seq.

Wisconsin

No person may require an individual to pay any dues, fees, etc. to a labor organization as a condition of employment.

No person may require an individual to become or remain a member of a labor organization as a condition of employment.

May sue for damages and injunctive relief. Violations considered unfair labor practices.

§111.04111.06

Wyoming

No person is required to pay or refrain from paying any dues, fees, etc. to any labor organization as a condition of employment.

No person is required to become or remain a member of any labor organization as a condition of employment.

May sue for damages and injunctive relief. Violation constitutes a misdemeanor punishable by a fine of up to $1,000, imprisonment for up to six months, or both.

§27-7-108 et seq.

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