What is a right-to-work state?
As of December 2020, 27 states and the territory of Guam have right-to-work laws. Existing federal right-to-work laws only address government employees on the state and federal level, whereas state laws address private and public unions equally.
States with right-to-work laws:
- North Carolina
- North Dakota
- South Carolina
- South Dakota
- West Virginia
In right-to-work states, employees who are hired by a union shop get to choose whether to join the union and pay union dues. Under the National Labor Relations Act (NLRA), no one can force or otherwise compel a new or existing employee to join, stay or leave the union against their will. Employees who decline to join the union are under no obligation to pay union dues, although they are permitted to enjoy the benefits that are obtained by the union through the collective bargaining process.
If an employee in a right-to-work state is approached by a union organizer to join the union, the employee enjoys the legal right to refuse membership and payment of fees. According to the NLRA, if an employee finds that dues are being taken out for union membership, they can put a stop to the withdrawals. However, the employee may be required to pay fees in order to receive certain protections and representation from union leadership.
In states that are not right-to-work states, on the other hand, employees can be required to join a union and pay union dues.
Two views on right-to-work laws
There are two different schools of thought when it comes to right-to-work laws. One way of thinking is that these laws weaken unions by reducing the amount of revenue in the form of union dues. The other way of thinking is that mandatory inclusion into a union and payment of dues is a violation of personal freedom.
Labor and employment rights groups are united in their opposition to right-to-work laws. Their argument consists of the concept that giving employees the choice to join deprives the union of funding to pursue collective bargaining agreements and protect employees from unjust actions by employers.
Another issue is the perception that non-union employees in right-to-work states are enjoying the results of the efforts made by the union without contributing financially. The burden of union protection is being placed on the shoulders of a few for the benefit of the many. Right-to-work laws are viewed by some as anti-union and union busting because they eliminate the major source of revenue for unions in the form of dues.
In comparison, proponents of right-to-work laws do not view their efforts as being specifically anti-union. Instead, they often view mandatory union membership as a violation of personal freedoms and the First Amendment. One of their arguments is that unions are inherently political and tend to back a party or candidate as a monolithic entity regardless of the political views of the individual union members. Another argument is that money from dues set aside for other uses may be used for political purposes in violation of its original use.
The least you should know about right-to-work states
If you operate a business with union employees in a right-to-work state, it’s important to understand that you can’t force an employee to join the union and pay dues, and neither can union stewards or leaders. However, non-union employees are still entitled to union protection and representation. If a non-union employee decides to engage union representation during a grievance, they may have to pay for the cost of the representation.
Non-union employees are also part of a bargaining unit, even though they’re not paying dues or maintaining membership. Right-to-work laws view union and non-union employees who share a workplace as having similar interests when it comes to their working conditions.
What this means for you as an employer is that you have to treat union and non-union members equally in regard to the conditions of their employment. All employees are entitled to enjoy the same benefits. For instance, you typically can’t section out non-union employees and refuse to give them the benefits that were negotiated by the union for their members.
It’s highly recommended that you research and learn your state’s right-to-work law and how it applies to a union shop. If you’re not confident in your ability to interpret the laws, contact an attorney who works in employment law to get a clearer understanding.