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What Are 'Right To Work' Laws?

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

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
  • 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; you don't want to risk handling this alone.

Congress and the state legislatures passed right-to-work laws because various labor unions were fleecing non-union workers for a ton 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.

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.

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

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.

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 that they enforce the local right-to-work laws, they will find a way to fire you. If this happens, you do have the option of filing a wrongful termination lawsuit. Just know that very few of these cases turn out well for employees.

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. You should seek the advice of an attorney. Consider speaking with an experienced labor lawyer today.

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