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What is the Right-To-Work Law?

G. Wiesen
G. Wiesen

The right-to-work law is a United States (US) state law that makes it illegal for a business to establish union membership as a requirement for employment. States that do not have a right-to-work law in place can have companies and businesses run as a “closed shop” that requires membership in a union or the paying of union dues for employment. A right-to-work law makes it so that employment in a company cannot be contingent upon membership within a union, and that leaving a union cannot be cause for termination of employment.

These laws came into effect after the passage of the Taft-Hartley Act in 1947 which, among other things, allowed states to establish right-to-work laws to reduce or eliminate the power of unions in those states. Prior to the passage of these laws, a business could be set up as a “union shop” and only allow employees to work there as long as they also joined a union. Subsequent leaving of the union could also be used as grounds for termination of employment. This type of behavior was viewed by some as being contrary to the freedom of association often considered guaranteed by the First Amendment to the US constitution.

Man with hands on his hips
Man with hands on his hips

Proponents for right-to-work laws insist they encourage fairness in the workplace and ensure that unions cannot control how a business is operated and managed. They typically insist that a union shop is contrary to the notion of a union looking out for the needs of workers while being separate from management, since one is often formed through agreements between a union and business owners. A right-to-work law can also often be pointed to as a way to increase business for a state, as proponents argue that businesses are typically drawn to states with laws that favor freedom of enterprise.

Opponents of states having a right-to-work law, however, argue that it gives up all real bargaining power for unions within the state. Pro-union workers often point out that though the law only states that union membership cannot be mandatory, businesses often use that to go to the other extreme and make non-membership in unions obligatory for employment. Since a right-to-work law gives non-union members all the same rights and privileges as those enjoyed by union members within a workplace, there is little incentive for workers to join a union. With fewer workers joining the union, opponents argue, the union has less money needed to continue operating, as well as losing any real bargaining power within the industry.

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