Here's everything you need to know about the right-to-work law, to whom it applies and where.
What Is right-to-work law?
The right-to-work law, which is also known as Workplace Freedom or Workplace Choice, is a law that grants workers the freedom to choose whether or not they want to join a union in the workplace. It also makes it optional for workers in unionized workplaces to pay union dues and other membership fees required for union representation (whether they're involved in the union or not).
What is the history of the right-to-work law?
The right-to-work law has a storied history that dates back to 1935, when President Franklin Roosevelt signed the National Labor Relations Acts (NLRA), also known as the Wagner Act, into law. The act protected employees' rights to create self-organizations and mandated employers to engage in collective bargaining and employment negotiations with these organizations, which we know as labor unions. And the NLRA required union membership as a condition for employment, which meant that employment was restricted to union members only, and these members were compelled to pay fees to the unions for representing and protecting their best interests.
More than a decade later in 1947, President Harry Truman amended parts of the NLRA, passing the Taft-Harley Act, which created the right-to-work law that allows states to prohibit the compulsory membership with a union as a condition for employment in both the public and private sectors.
Flash forward to today, and 27 states have passed the right-to-work law, which gives employees the option as to whether or not they want to associate with unions. Employees can decide whether or not they want to pay their dues to the unions that are still fully operative in these right-to-work dates. Meanwhile, the remaining states that haven't passed the law still require employees to pay union dues as a term for employment.
Most recently, Congress introduced the National Right-to-Work Act that would give employees nationwide the choice to opt out of joining or paying dues to unions. Two Republican congressmen, Steve King of Iowa and Joe Wilson of South Carolina, introduced the National Right-to-Work Act in the House of Representatives on February 1, 2017. Rand Paul reintroduced the Act in 2021.
What is the Right to Work principle?
The Right to Work principle holds that people should have the option of joining a union but should not be compelled to do so. In other world, it affirms that people should have the agency to make a choice in the matter.
What is a right-to-work state?
To date, 27 states and Guam have given workers a choice regarding union membership. One state, Missouri, adopted the law that was later defeated in a referendum.
Alabama adopted the law in 1953.
Arizona adopted the law in 1947.
Arkansas adopted the law in 1947.
Florida adopted the law in 1943.
Georiga adopted the law in 1947.
Idaho adopted the law in 1985.
Indiana adopted the law in 2012.
Iowa adopted the law in 1947.
Kansas adopted the law in 1958.
Kentucky adopted the law in 2017.
Louisiana adopted the law in 1976.
Michigan adopted the law in 2012.
Mississippi adopted the law in 1954.
Nebraska adopted the law in 1947.
Nevada adopted the law in 1952.
16. North Carolina
North Carolina adopted the law in 1947.
17. North Dakota
North Dakota adopted the law in 1947.
Oklahoma adopted the law in 2001.
19. South Carolina
South Carolina adopted the law in 1954.
20. South Dakota
South Dakota adopted the law in 1947.
Tennessee adopted the law in 1947.
Texas adopted the law in 1993.
Utah adopted the law in 1955.
Virginia adopted the law in 1947.
Wisconsin adopted the law in 2015.
26. West Virginia
West Virginia adopted the law in 2016.
Wyoming adopted the law in 1963.
A right-to-work bill was recently passed in the New Hampshire Senate. Other states such as California, New York, Illinois, Pennsylvania, Oregon and Ohio, for example, are not right-to-work states and have no signs of becoming ones.
What is the controversy surrounding the right-to-work law?
A 2014 Gallup poll suggests that most Americans are indeed in favor of the right-to-work law, giving workers the choice of whether or not they actually want to join a union. Seventy-one percent of the poll's respondents reported that they would vote in favor of the right-to-work law, while only 22 percent said that they would vote against it.
"Right-to-work proponents argue that it expands workers' rights — specifically, the right to decide to join a union — and keeps unions accountable because they must prove the advantages of membership," explains The Balance contributor, John Steven Niznik. "Opponents argue that right-to-work encourages freeloading — because a worker can enjoy union representation without paying dues — and is essentially a roundabout way to undermine unions in a workplace, depriving them of revenue, membership numbers, and, ultimately, their bargaining power with management. Advocates say right-to-work preserves individual freedoms; critics call it 'the right to work — for less.'"
Union dues, of course, add up. For some, these costs can add up to a few hundred dollars per person per year. For example, the United Automobile, Aerospace and Agricultural Implement Workers of America (UAW)'s monthly dues are equivalent to about two hours’ worth of pay. Unions use this money to maintain themselves and their negotiating contracts, as well as for funds toward awareness campaigns on pending legislation, proposed bills and for strikes. Controversially, unions may donate to political campaigns with these funds. In fact, according to the Wall Street Journal, labor unions spent $108.2 million by end of August on 2016 political campaigns. That’s up 38 percent from 2012.
Of course, many employees don't want to pay dues for unions that they never wanted to be part of in the first place, and they especially don't want their money funding political campaigns with which they don't agree. Likewise, employers generally tend to support right-to-work legislation, which union representatives have argued is because the fewer employees in a union, the less effective that union becomes.
But the argument is even more nuanced than a debate about who should pay what and why.
"Business groups have long argued that right-to-work laws make American businesses less competitive globally because they have to compete with low-wage countries," explains Investopedia contributor, Daniel Kurt. "However, unions say such laws starve them of dues and non-member fees, and weaken their power during the collective-bargaining process, resulting in lower salaries, inferior health insurance offerings and a deterioration in workplace safety."
There's a ton of controversy surrounding the right-to-work law, and only time will tell if national legislation will take over.
AnnaMarie Houlis is a feminist, a freelance journalist and an adventure aficionado with an affinity for impulsive solo travel. She spends her days writing about women’s empowerment from around the world. You can follow her work on her blog, HerReport.org, and follow her journeys on Instagram @her_report, Twitter @herreport and Facebook.