AnnaMarie Houlis
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Here's everything you need to know about the right-to-work law, to whom these laws apply and in what states these laws exist.

What is the right to work law in simple terms?

The right-to-work law, which is also known as the Workplace Freedom or Workplace Choice law, is a law that grants workers the right to choose whether or not they'd like to join a union in their workplace. Likewise, it also makes it optional for workers already in unionized workplaces to pay union dues and other membership fees that are required for union representation (whether they're involved in the union or not).

What does it mean to work in a right to work state?

If you work in a right-to-work state, you can choose whether or not you want to join a union in your workplace, and you can choose whether or not you want to pay union dues and membership fees required for union representation, whether or not you're involved in the union.

What is “exclusive representation”?

Exclusive representation can be defined as "the right of a union, chosen by a majority of the employees in a plant, craft, industry or department of a shop or business, to represent all the employees in the unit, regardless of whether they are members of the union or not."

Can you be fired for no reason in a right to work state?

You may or may not be fired for any reason in a right-to-work state, because right-to-work laws have absolutely nothing to do with whether or not you can be fired. What does matter is not whether or not the state has the right-to-work law, but rather whether or not it's an at-will state.

Every state but Montana is an at-will employment state. Basically, under this at-will policy, either the employer or the employee can terminate employment at any time for any reason (unless it's illegal and proven wrongful termination, which is hard to do) without consequence — unless the employee has a contract or a union agreement that states otherwise. Therefore, many union agreements have requirements that employers only terminate for just causes, and that's why many confuse the right-to-work laws with at-will laws.

What are the benefits of a right to work state?

While the right-to-work law can be controversial, a 2014 Gallup poll suggests that most Americans are actually in favor of it, as it gives 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 indeed vote in favor of the right-to-work law, while only 22 percent said that they would vote against it.

In essence, the right-to-work law expands workers' rights, such as their right to decide to join a union — and it holds unions accountable of the advantages that membership has to offer. While opponents of the law argue that workers should have to pay dues if they want to enjoy union representation — and not paying can actually deprive unions of revenue and, as such, take away their power — proponents argue that right-to-work laws preserve individual freedoms. 

What is the history of the right to work law?

The history of the right-to-work law dates back to 1935. President Franklin Roosevelt signed the National Labor Relations Acts (NLRA), which is also known as the Wagner Act, into law. In short, that act had protected employees' right to start self-organizations, and it forced employers to engage in collective bargaining and employment negotiations with those organizations, which have since become known as labor unions. The NLRA required union membership for all employees, and these employees were forced to pay fees to the unions that were intended to represent and protect them.

But in 1947, President Harry Truman amended parts of the NLRA, passing the Taft-Harley Act, which created the right-to-work law. This then allowed states to prohibit employers from forcing employees to pay for memberships with unions in both the public and private sectors. And, today, 27 states have passed the law, which gives employees the option as to whether or not they want to join a union and whether or not they want to pay their dues.

The remaining states that haven't passed the right-to-work law still require employees to pay union dues as a condition for employment, as it's been since 1935. But Congress has recently introduced the National Right-to-Work Act that would give employees nationwide the choice to join unions or pay dues. Specifically, 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.

No federal right-to-work law exists to date, however.

What are the U.S. States with right-to-work laws?

To date, there are 27 states and Guam with right-to-work laws. And one state, Missouri, adopted the law, but it was later defeated in a referendum.

1. Alabama

Alabama adopted the law in 1953.

2. Arizona

Arizona adopted the law in 1947.

3. Arkansas

Arkansas adopted the law in 1947.

4. Florida

Florida adopted the law in 1943.

5. Georgia

Georgia adopted the law in 1947.

6. Idaho

Idaho adopted the law in 1985.

7. Indiana

Indiana adopted the law in 2012.

8. Iowa

Iowa adopted the law in 1947.

9. Kansas

Kansas adopted the law in 1958.

10. Kentucky

Kentucky adopted the law in 2017.

11. Louisiana

Louisiana adopted the law in 1976.

12. Michigan

Michigan adopted the law in 2012.

13. Mississippi

Mississippi adopted the law in 1954.

14. Missouri

Missouri adopted the law in 2017, but the law was defeated in a 2018 referendum before it could take effect.

15. Nebraska

Nebraska adopted the law in 1947.

16. Nevada

Nevada adopted the law in 1952.

17. North Carolina

North Carolina adopted the law in 1947.

18. North Dakota

North Dakota adopted the law in 1947.

19. Oklahoma

Oklahoma adopted the law in 2001.

20. South Carolina

South Carolina adopted the law in 1954.

21. South Dakota

South Dakota adopted the law in 1947.

22. Tennessee

Tennessee adopted the law in 1947.

23. Texas

Texas adopted the law in 1993.

24. Utah

Utah adopted the law in 1955.

25. Virginia

Virgina adopted the law in 1947.

26. Wisconsin

Wisconsin adopted the law in 2015.

27. West Virginia

West Virginia adopted the law in 2016.

28. Wyoming

Wyoming adopted the law in 1963.

States such as New Hampshire, Illinois, Montana, Minnesota, Delaware and Colorado are currently working toward following in these states' footsteps to adopt the right-to-work law, too. Other states like California, New York, Illinois, Pennsylvania, Oregon and Ohio, for examples, are not right-to-work states and have no signs of becoming ones.

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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.