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What is "Right to Work"?

Posted by on Dec 17 2012
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By: Bob Lucore

The lame duck Republican legislature in Michigan recently passed a so-called “right-to-work” law, which was instantly signed by the governor. Media coverage of this event was far from adequate. Many reporters seemed confused, and even anxious when trying to explain the mechanics of the so-called “right-to-work” legislation. Perhaps this is understandable. The topic is complex and few reporters have been educated in its intricacies or the fundamentals of U.S. labor law. “Right-to-work” is much more complex than its simple-sounding name would lead one to believe, and the issue cannot be explained in a sound bite.

To comprehend “right-to-work” laws, it is first necessary to be familiar with some key concepts
about labor union representation. Under federal law, workers in the private sector who seek
to gain union representation must win an election supervised by the National Labor Relations
Board. Then they can attempt to come to an agreement, commonly called a contract, with their
employer. Union members get to vote on whether or not to accept the negotiated contract.
Usual provisions of the contract include items such as wages, hours, benefits and a grievance
procedure.

The law requires unions to represent all workers covered by a contract. Every worker gets fair
representation, whether or not they pay dues to the union. It costs money to represent workers in grievance hearings, to make sure that employers are living up to their end of the contract, and to meet the obligations promised by the union under the agreement.

In the contract, unions and employers will often agree to a “union security clause,” which says
that workers who receive the benefits of being represented by the union must share the costs of union representation. A union security clause may require the workers to pay for the union’s
costs in bargaining for and representing the employees. This is done to prevent what economists call “free riders,” or people who receive benefits without paying their fair share of costs.

The Supreme Court ruled long ago that workers cannot be required to join a union as part of
a labor agreement. Any worker, who chooses not to join, cannot be forced to pay for political
activities, legislative efforts, or any other union activity outside of collective bargaining, contract administration, or the grievance process. There is no such thing as forced unionism. However, if the employer and the union agree to a union security clause, those who chose not to join can be required to pay for their fair share of the union’s costs of representing them (even though they cannot be required to pay dues for costs not related to collective bargaining).

To summarize, unions are required to represent everyone, member or not, who is covered by a collective bargaining agreement. Union security clauses require everyone who benefits to pay their fair share. Union security clauses are not imposed by unions, but are entered into
voluntarily by the employer and the union.


A so-called “right-to-work” law imposes the power of the state on the employer and the
union
. It forbids the employer and the union to freely enter into an agreement on a union
security clause. It makes it illegal for the agreement to require employees to pay their fair share of representation.

Obviously this makes life more difficult for unions and for those employees who choose to
continue to pay dues. That is its intent. Despite clever rhetoric, “right-to-work” has nothing to
do with giving people jobs, promoting employment, or preventing forced unionism. It is simply
a power play to employ the power of government to keep workers from freely exercising their
rights to be represented by a union of their own choosing.


Bob Lucore, a long-time ADA board member, is the former Director of Research and Policy for the United American Nurses and has worked for the Teamsters and the Department of Economic Research at the AFL-CIO. . He taught economics for several years at Centre College and Colorado State University and is currently studying Library and Information Science at San José State University. Bob is a member of UAW Local 1981, the National Writers Union.

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