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What Are 'Right To Work' Laws?

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

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 that spells out the terms and conditions of that employment, including wages, benefits, hours, and other working conditions. In return for its services, the union seeks the payment of dues from the employees covered by the agreement.

In most industries, the union becomes the representative of the employees when it is selected by a majority of the employees voting in an election held by the government. In the construction industry, an employer can also enter into a collective bargaining agreement with a union without an election. In either case, there frequently are employees who are covered by the agreement that do not want to belong to the union or pay union dues.

It is the interests of these employees that has 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 an employee does not have to be a union member in order to obtain or keep a job covered by a collective bargaining agreement — a so-called “union" job. Under these decisions, an employee is not required to pay the full amount of union dues required for union membership. But the decisions have also provided that unions could require that all employees pay an “agency fee" or “fair share" payment. These payments are the portion of the union dues that represents the union's costs of collective bargaining, contract administration, and grievance handling. For most unions, the agency fee has been less than the full union dues. However, it's not always significantly less than those dues.

As a result of this less-than-satisfactory solution, more than half the states have enacted right to work laws. Under these laws, no employee can be required to belong to a union or pay union dues or agency fees as a condition of obtaining or holding a job with a union employer. While the specifics of these laws vary from state to state, all contain remedies for violations of the law, including civil enforcement, money damages, and injunctive relief. Some statutes even provide for criminal penalties.

In 2018, in a case called Janus v. AFSCME, the Supreme Court held that no public employee could be required to be a union member or 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 for the public sector.

Regardless of whether an employee's rights come from state law or the Janus decision, a new or existing employee need only notify the union of their decision to be free from union membership, union dues, and agency fees. The union bears the responsibility of complying with the employee's decision.

The Continuing Debate Over 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 dues or fees should be deducted from their pay.

Those opposed to right to work laws view them as 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 that it is unfair that these laws allow employees to benefit from unions without contributing to the unions' expenses.

Get Legal Advice About Right to Work Laws

The labor laws applicable to you will depend on the laws of the state and the industry in which you work. 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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