What is a Right-To-Work-State?

September 25, 2017

Topics: Unions and the NLRB

Employers often feel that they have certain abilities and rights in the workplace because their state is a “Right-to-Work” state or an “at-will-state.”  However, sometimes these labels do not provide the rights or protections employers, or employees, think.  For example, “Right-to-Work” does not mean that everyone literally has a right to work.  While that may be so in the general sense, “Right-to-work” laws address how labor unions operate in that state.  “At-will-states” protect employer abilities to fire employees without cause.  This blog examines what Right-to-Work states are and how they work for employers.

Back in 1947, Congress passed the Taft-Hartley Act which allows businesses to become “union shops.”  That means that once a union is recognized as representing certain categories of workers for that business, any employee hired in those job categories is required to join that particular union, pay union dues, follow the rules set by the union, and receive the benefits provided to all employees covered by that union under the applicable Collective Bargaining Agreement (“CBA”).  However, Taft-Hartley also created an exception for states to opt-out of the union shop rule and, more specifically, to pass state laws that prohibit union shops.  These laws are “Right-to-Work” laws and they turn the state’s workplaces into “open shops.”

States can vary how their individual “Right-to-Work” laws function.  Generally, however, while permitting labor unions to organize workplaces and enter into CBAs with the employer, these laws prohibit contracts requiring all covered employees to join the union or pay union dues or fees.  Employees can join the union if they wish, but cannot be compelled to do so. More importantly, they cannot be fired or passed over for hire if they refuse to join the existing union or pay general union dues in an open shop, where that can happen with union shops.

The effect of “Right-to-Work” laws is that unions are required to provide union benefits and services to all employees in the covered categories without regard to whether the employee has opted to join the union or pay the general dues or fees.  If an employee who did not pay general union dues looks to the union for representation or support, such as to file a grievance on the employee’s behalf, the union may charge that employee the cost of that representation.

Just over half the states currently have Right-to-Work laws including Alabama, Arizona, Arkansas, Florida, Georgia, Idaho, Indiana, Iowa, Kansas, Kentucky, Louisiana, Michigan, Mississippi, Missouri (effective August 28th, 2017), Nebraska, Nevada, North Carolina, North Dakota, Oklahoma, South Carolina, South Dakota, Tennessee, Texas, Utah, Virginia, West Virginia (not currently in effect due to pending litigation), Wisconsin, and Wyoming.   However, this area is constantly changing, both adding to and subtracting from this list.  Please consult with your labor counsel to confirm the status of the law in your state.