Right-to-work laws guarantee access to employment for workers regardless of their union status. In other words, they can still work at a unionized company even if they do not elect to join the associated union. This type of law undermines union efforts to require all workers at a given company or in a specific industry to join and support collective bargaining efforts by that union.
The right to work without joining a union is based on the federal Taft-Hartley Act of 1947. However, the laws did not become popular until the 1970s, and most states did not regulate union membership.
Currently, 27 states have right-to-work laws, but there is no national law that specifically guarantees the right to work. Right-to-work laws influence not only employment but also worker compensation and other issues. These laws can also affect employers and how they utilize both employees and contractors as a source of labor.
Here is what employers, employees, and licensed contractors need to know about right-to-work laws.
Common Misconceptions of Right-to-Work Laws
People often misunderstand right-to-work laws, and some use the term interchangeably with other employment regulations that do not concern union membership.
At-Will vs Right-to-Work
Quite often, people think that the right to work means that their employers should not or cannot fire them at-will. This assumption is not correct. Most states already have at-will employment laws, which means employers can fire their employees for no reason at all unless the employee has a contract that outlines termination requirements and limitations.
There is more confusion sometimes because a union may enforce an agreement that requires employers to provide just cause when firing a union employee. Though this type of contract involves union negotiation, it is not directly related to right-to-work laws.
Another common misconception is that right-to-work laws mean that an employer cannot enforce a non-compete agreement, which typically prohibits an employee from working for a competitor after leaving a job.
In this case, the name is the cause of the misunderstanding. People often think the laws give them the ‘right to work’ for competitors.
Right-to-Work Jurisdiction in the United States
A source of confusion is the difference between federal and state right-to-work laws. Federal right-to-work laws came from the Taft-Hartley Act. The law declares so-called “closed shops” – employers who only hire union members – illegal.
Under the law, if employers wanted to hire union members, they would have to require them to join the union a set number of days after hiring. The same law also prohibits unions from making contributions to political campaigns.
State-specific laws vary from one place to another. However, the general idea is that state right-to-work laws can prohibit an employer from requiring employees to pay union dues and agency fees (fees to reap the benefits negotiated under union contracts with employers if one is not a union member).
In other words, employees have the right to work without either being part of a union or having to pay union fees. At the heart of it, right-to-work laws make it illegal for an employer to force employees to join a union or pay any fees to a union as a requirement for employment.
Right-to-Work Laws Advantages and Disadvantages
There are advantages and disadvantages to living in right-to-work states. These laws can affect someone’s ability to get a job, but they can also lead to wage differences. In right-to-work states, wages are lower overall and workers typically enjoy access to fewer employment benefits because employers can negotiate with employees individually rather than with a union as a whole.
Pros of Right-to-Work Laws
- You can’t lose your job over unpaid union dues.
- Unions have to be less aggressive in their recruitment efforts, and they cannot force non-members to join by keeping them from enjoying their benefits.
- You can choose to leave a union without any effect on your employment status.
- Right-to-work laws result in more jobs in some sectors, such as construction and manufacturing, since employers don’t have to only hire union members.
- Employers can pay lower wages because they do not have to abide by union pay requirements.
- Right-to-work laws give each person the right to choose whether to be part of a union or not.
Cons of Right-to-Work Laws
- Unions grow weaker as they lose revenue when workers opt out of membership.
- Unions are harder to form without the ability to negotiate on behalf of all employees.
- Right-to-work states tend to have lower wages for the same jobs than non-right-to-work states. Employers can hire non-union employees for less. Many often choose this route since they can save money by doing so.
- Workers also receive fewer benefits in a right-to-work state. Union negotiations include health insurance, pensions, training, career advancement, and educational assistance. Employers can hire non-union workers without having to give them these benefits.
Are Right-to-Work Laws Anti-Union?
Unions have been around since the Industrial Revolution. They arose out of necessity, as there were no real regulations, and workers endured sometimes-appalling conditions. Unions gave the worker a voice and helped them ensure the average worker received fair treatment. While individual unions’ actions and philosophies evolved since then, they all profess to take care of their members’ wellbeing.
State-level right-to-work laws vary, but few of them explicitly set out to end unions. The ostensible goal of these laws is to give workers additional choices.
However, unions and employment rights groups typically oppose right-to-work laws because they believe that these rules sometimes end up harming unions by lessening their negotiating power. In right-to-work states, a union negotiates on behalf of members, but employers can go around them and hire non-members, limiting unions’ bargaining powers.
To have a powerful enough position, a union needs to convince employees to join rather than require them. While these laws are not explicitly anti-union, they can effectively make it more difficult for unions to sustain themselves and exercise influence over employers.
How Right-to-Work Laws Affect Employers
To a large extent, right-to-work laws benefit employers. They are less beholden to unions’ demands, which means they can negotiate employment contracts individually with each employee.
Often, they can pay less than they would in a non-right-to-work state. They may offer less generous benefits, such as insurance and pensions, and workers may have a more challenging time lobbying for better contracts.
At the same time, employers can use the additional money saved from lower wages to hire more employees and expand operations, benefiting the economy.
How Right to Work Laws Affect Employees
For employees, right-to-work laws are a mixed bag. On the one hand, right-to-work rules can allow employees to save money that they would otherwise have to pay as union dues or agency fees. It also gives them the ability to get jobs without having to join unions. Some unions are politically active, and an employee might not wish to participate for this reason.
On the other hand, these laws can mean lower wages and fewer benefits for employees. Even if they opt to join a union, the employer can weaken the union’s position by hiring non-union workers.
One advantage of right-to-work laws for independent contractors and the self-employed is that they can get jobs that would have otherwise gone for union members. Becoming licensed as a general contractor or in the other skilled trades does not require applicants to pay dues or join a union. Their negotiating positions may be strong because they still offer a cheaper alternative to unions.