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Details on State Right-to-Work Laws

In the 1940s, many states enacted so-called right-to-work laws prohibiting the requirement that non-union employees at unionized workplaces pay a monthly fee comparable to union membership dues. It is often suggested that these laws prohibit "forced union membership," which already is prohibited under federal law. Most of these laws even state that employment may not be denied on the basis of one's union membership, but that already is illegal at the federal level.

As labor unions began to organize and bargain with employers on behalf of their members, a number of legal issues began to arise, such as:

  • If a union negotiated a contract with a company, did the contract cover only union members, or those employees who refused to join the union too?
  • Could the union insist that the employer refuse to hire non-union members?
  • If a member violated some union policy, could the union insist that the employer fire the employee?

How Many States Have Right-to Work Laws?

Twenty-five states are currently "right to work" states. Twenty-five and the District of Columbia have no statutory provision, apparently allowing the union to bargain with the employer for the right to insist upon the payment of monthly dues as a condition for employment.

Don't I Have a Right-to-Work Anyway?

Yes, but "right-to-work" can be a bit of a misnomer. "Right-to-Work" means that you cannot be forced to join a union or pay dues. It does not mean that workers cannot build a union. It definitely doesn't mean that anyone has a right to work.

Right To Work Movement Across the United States

Some states passed right-to-work law to make unions weaker. Critics of these laws argue that bosses use it to divide workers and encourage workers not to belong to the union. In states that have it, there are fewer unions and workers have many fewer laws protecting them.

Proponents of these laws argue that it's unfair to require non-union members to pay union dues, while opponents charge that right-to-work laws are intended to decrease union membership (which, in fact, has happened in states that have passed these laws).

Several prominent figures throughout history have spoken out against right-to-work laws including the famed Teamsters President Jimmy Hoffa and civil rights leader Martin Luther King, Jr.

Right to Organize

As well as putting restrictions on prohibiting union membership requirements, some state labor laws also specifically allow for union membership.

In Texas, for instance, the relevant section of the law states that "All persons engaged in any kind of labor may associate and form trade unions and other organizations to protect themselves in their personal labor in their respective employment." As well, members of the union are allowed to influence others to enter or refuse employment, but not prohibit it. This means that even though an employer would hire a union member, there may be an enormous social pressure to not work with an employer if the union does not approve of it.

National Labor Relations Board

The National Labor Relation Board's website offers detailed information about federal union laws and procedures. Regardless of whether a state has passed a right-to-work law, it is illegal for employers to threaten employees who express an interest in joining or forming a union or to promise certain benefits to those who refuse to join a union.

Note: State employment laws are always subject to change, usually through legislation, ballot initiative, or court ruling -- contact a labor law attorney in your state or conduct your own legal research to verify the state law(s) you are researching.

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