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Right-to-Work Laws: What General Counsel Need to Know

By Deanne Katz, Esq. on December 12, 2012 | Last updated on March 21, 2019

Michigan Gov. Rick Snyder has signed the state's new "right-to-work" bills, making Michigan the 24th state with right-to-work laws on the books.

Supporters say the laws encourage business investments and give workers more freedom. Opponents say the laws will reduce union membership and could potentially cripple organized labor since unions may lose funds if employees opt out.

But love it or hate it, if your client has employees in a so-called "right-to-work state," it's important to know how to deal with them.

The basics of right-to-work laws are pretty straightforward, and allowing employees to opt out of unions will likely give your client more freedom in hiring.

But it's not the general idea of a law that makes it complicated. The devil is in the details, and almost every right-to-work law comes with a few caveats.

Michigan's new laws are a good example. So far at least two big exceptions have been identified.

While one of the bills that became law on Tuesday dealt with government employees, it specifically exempted firefighters and police, according to The Detroit News. The laws allowing employees to opt out of union membership don't apply to those two groups.

The law also doesn't dissolve existing union contracts. Current contracts will have to wait until they expire for the new rules to take effect.

In Michigan, that makes a big difference since the "Big Three" automakers recently inked a new union contract with the United Auto Workers, reports Reuters. The deal will last until September 2015.

If similar loopholes exist in your state, it could have a big impact on the practical effect of right-to-work legislation.

The other thing to consider is how long the law will last. At least in Michigan, opponents are hoping the laws won't last past the 2014 election, when voters could potentially get a chance to repeal them.

Organized labor is a tricky legal area to begin with, and right-to-work laws don't do anything to simplify it. So if your client is located in one of the two-dozen states with such provisions on the books, make sure to brush up on the law.

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