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What Are 'Right To Work' Laws?

A non-union truck driver has the right to work under state law

"Right to work" laws address situations related to memberships in labor unions -- In short, 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.

State and Federal 'Right to Work' Laws

There’s some confusion surrounding "right to work laws"—perhaps due to the somewhat misleading title. While the "right to work" logically sounds like the right to have a job, or to keep a job once you have it, the term is related to membership in a labor union. More than half of U.S. states have enacted so-called "right to work" laws that guarantee no person can be compelled to join a union or pay union dues, as a condition of employment. Further, right to work laws can prohibit contracts that require the hiring of unionized workers only. The idea behind the right to work principle is that every individual has the right to join a labor union, but must not be compelled to do so.

Such laws exist at both the state and federal level. The Taft-Hartley Act is a federal right to work law that was enacted in 1947. It outlawed all "closed" shops—meaning employers who hire only union members. The Act allows "union" shops (unionized businesses that require non-union members to join the union within a specified number of days from hire) only through majority approval from all employees. The law also prohibits unions from contributing to political campaigns.

The details of state-specific right to work laws will vary. However, state laws all contain remedies for violations of the laws, including civil enforcement, money damages, and injunctive relief. Some statues even provide for criminal penalties for the violation of right to work provisions.

The Debate Surrounding "Right to Work" Laws

Right to work laws, like many issues relating to labor unions, are hotly debated. Those in favor of the right to work view the issue essentially as one of personal choice and freedom—that every worker should be able to choose to join a union or not. Some even view it through a Constitutional lens, that all have the freedom to associate with a union or not and to decide if union fees should be deducted from pay.

Those opposed to right to work laws view them as innately "anti-union." Because federal law already prohibits compulsory union membership, some argue that state right to work legislation serves no other purpose beyond harming unions. Opponents further argue that right to work laws weaken unions' bargaining strength, which consequently lowers wages and benefits for workers. Some feel it unfair that these laws allow employees to benefit from unions while not contributing to union dues.

Get Legal Advice About "Right to Work" Laws

The labor laws applicable to you will depend significantly on the laws of your state. If you believe that your rights as a worker have been violated, or if you want to learn more about right to work laws, you may want to seek the advice of an attorney. Consider speaking with an experienced labor lawyer today.

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