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Right to Work

There’s something ironic about the phrase for which the legislation is coined considering the concept of labor and the fruits of it lead to the continued survival of the worker are natural rights.  Fundamentally, whether labor is done for remuneration, personal development, or charity, it has some benefit to us as people.  As free people, we are free to seek employment from any source we wish, may negotiate the rate and conditions for which we will perform it, and depending on the type of work, we may negotiate a timeframe for which the work will be performed.

Where tension and hostility can arise is working conditions, pay, benefits, and treatment.  This is where the concept of the labor organization, or the union began.  While there are millions that can successfully negotiate their own salary, benefits, and terms of employment, there are others that cannot as easily.  If you include people that practice a vocational trade, they don’t approach an employer in the same way that a student looking for work in retail does.

From the section in the IRS tax code that discusses the tax-exempt nature of unions, their purpose is:

A labor organization is an association of workers who have combined to protect or promote their interests by bargaining collectively with their employers to secure better working conditions, wages, and similar benefits. Similar benefits include benefits traditionally provided by labor organizations such as strike, lockout, death, sickness, accident, and other benefits. Labor organizations need not be recognized labor unions.  An organization does not qualify for exemption if its net earnings inure to the benefit of any member.

We’ve all heard the names AFSCME, Teamsters, AFL-CIO, IBEW, and Fraternal Order of Police – they are all labor organizations that represent a segment of American workers in various trades and occupations.  TheLaborSite.com has what appears to a comprehensive listing of labor organizations.

Employment in the United States is broken into a few categories:

  • At-will employment:  Your employment terms are freely negotiated between you and the employer, with no two employees terms being the same.  There is no written contract of employment; either party may terminate employment at any time, and for any reason not prohibited by law.  The worker has the power to negotiate terms with the employer, who may accept or deny it at their discretion.  Generally, salaries are determined by market rates combined with the experience and education of the prospect.  Employment comes without fee or membership to the prospect, but it can incur a fee to the employer who may pay an agency a fee for workers.
  • Contract employment:  Your employment terms are based on a written contract provided by the person offering the labor.  Terms can include duration of employment, the responsibilities for both sides, remuneration, benefits, behavior expected of both sides, and due process considerations should someone violate the terms of the contract.  Contract employment occurs often, but not always, between an agent and a client.  While agents are not always needed since the employee can negotiate with an employer on their own, many will have legal experience and be familiar with common types of contracts used in the field of employment.  While an agent doesn’t need to be an attorney to recognize bad contracts or unethical behavior, many will have at least one attorney they can contact for questions or possible litigation.
  • Collective bargaining agreements (CBA):  Similar to contract employment, but the result applies to all employees with a particular employer, versus the individual employee.  Where a labor organization differs from an agent is representation; labor organizations have dedicated teams with the purpose of being a point of contact should the employer fail to uphold their end of the CBA, while agents will assist in the acquisition of employment, but play no role when the employer falls short.  While employees are within their rights to hire legal representation when an employer breaks the law or violates their employment contract, depending on the employee’s financial situation, hiring a lawyer may be impossible.  In a labor organization, your dues pays for everything from the steward that represents you to your employer, to the lawyers available to the worker to engage in due process.

Fundamentally, labor organizations are organized no different than any other private organization.  Under the First Amendment’s freedoms of association and assembly, unions can exist for the benefit of their members, and they are allowed to charge members a fee for their services.  Like any membership-driven organization, a union is going to act in the best interests of its members, which can include lobbying, setting policy, and providing information to members on external information that could threaten the existence of the organization.

The murky and legally suspect actions that have been undertaken by unions include:

  • Requiring employees to become a member of the union as a condition of employment.
  • Using member dues for activities unrelated to the mission of the union.
  • When informing members about activity impacting the health of the union, the information can be misleading, hazy, or distorted.
  • Member or employee-shaming when they express an idea that is opposite what the union favors.

Requiring employees to become a member of the union

It’s important to note that there is a difference between being a member of the union and being subject to the collective bargaining agreement negotiated by members.  After all, if you’re going to reap the benefits, why not pay into it?

The point of a labor union existing is promote the values of, and negotiate a better working environment, better salaries and benefits, and allow members a platform to voice their concern when there are concerns, but for the benefit of all workers.

Joining the union has a number of implications:

  • You’re associating with the organization, financially contributing to its health and longevity, and you are in-effect supporting its mission.
  • Since union officials speaks on behalf of all members as a group, members are assumed to agree with the message spoken, including positions taken.
  • You’re only going to receive information and news that’s union-approved, effectively locking you into an echo-chamber that you are financially supporting.

Using dues for activities unrelated to the union’s mission

Nobody would ever contest that a private organization can appropriate its money however it wants.  Since joining a union is different than joining other organizations, such as political parties, There is a two-part issue:

  • Not all union membership is voluntary, therefore, you have employees that are being forced to associate with something that either they may not agree with, or something that may not represent their interests.  In fact, it’s arguable that requiring people to join an organization that have no desire to be a part of it is counterproductive.
  • For union members that do join voluntarily, they expect their dues to go toward its mission.  Imagine that your dues go toward the funding of legal representation for when your employer violates your CBA, but the legal representation is unavailable because their salary was re-appropriated as a campaign contribution to a lawmaker whose interest are opposite the union.

Information coming from the union can be suspect and misleading

It’s generally the policy of an organization to inform its members of things that are occurring that impact its operations.  When one joins an organization, there is an expectation that information shared will only be germane to its mission.  It’s also permissible and expected that information disseminated to members will be tailored in a manner easiest understood, and delivered to members in the most convenient ways.

During an election season, it’s expected that the organization will tell you which candidates for office have an agenda that’s pro-union, or most beneficial to it.  While it’s dishonest and unethical to take a candidate’s position and distort it, it’s worse when the means of acquiring that information are based on questions with faulty wording.

Chilling speech or viewpoints that are contrary to official union positions

While a private organization is entitled to create an echo chamber where opposition is stifled, the free exchange of ideas is what contributes to the learning environment.  Just because one pays union dues doesn’t mean their speech more important than one that isn’t.  The only exception to this rule might be that if you are unhappy with something the union is doing, but you elect not to join the union to push for change.

Those that are members of a given union should still have the right to voice their opposition to a popular policy, position, or even a person’s performance.  The union may consider such opposition counterproductive to their mission, but if the organization values its members opinions even in the face of opposition, they will hear the member out and consider their words.

Unions have not been without their legal strife

Everything from the mandatory collection of dues, to how unions spend the dues they collect, to the mandatory nature of association has been through the courts.  The National Right to Work Committee has made a list of court rulings that makes up the timeline of where unions started, to where they are now.

While it’s not on their site because it didn’t contribute a win to the cause, the SCOTUS had the opportunity to hear Friedrichs v. California Teachers Association, but where the court was one-man short after the passing of Justice Scalia, it ended up divided, thus upholding the lower court ruling.  While a win for the plaintiffs would not change existing CBA’s, nor would it change who is affected by them, it would just allow employees to have the choice of membership.

Legislative map

As with other maps on this website, states highlighted in red have enacted Right to Work laws.  Clicking on red states will link you to the applicable statute.

Right to Work

The table below lists legislation that is currently up for debate in each state's legislatures. These bills only pertain to the passage of a law that fits the definition of prohibiting conditioning employment on union membership.
StateBill link
MassachusettsView Bill
New MexicoView Bill
PennsylvaniaView Bill
Nationally (would affect all 50 states if enacted)View Bill