Should workers be compelled to pay a union as a condition of employment?
That is the question at the heart of the debate over “right to work” laws. The federal government enacted legislation in 1947 allowing states to prohibit employment contracts that mandate employees join or pay an agency fee to a union. As of 2016, there are 26 states with such laws.
Proponents of right to work laws say they are necessary to stop coerced unionization. They contend that people should be free to take a job without being forced into paying a labor organization with which they disagree. Opponents of the concept say that unions bargain for benefits and pay increases that go to all workers, so it is unfair to have only some workers join.
Legislators and governors are the ones who ultimately decide whether a state is a right to work state or not. There has been some action in recent years to enact such laws:
Wisconsin – Legislators passed a right to work bill in Wisconsin in early 2015, with Governor Scott Walker signing it into law in March. A state judge invalidated the legislation in April 2016, but that ruling was overturned. As of now, Wisconsin’s right to work law is in effect, but legal challenges to it continue.
West Virginia – In February 2016, West Virginia’s Republican legislature passed a right to work bill that Democratic Governor Earl Tomblin vetoed. The legislature overrode Tomblin’s veto, and the bill became law. Much like in Wisconsin, there have been legal challenges to the law. In West Virginia, however, the law is on hold until the legal issues are resolved.
Virginia - the legislative effort around right to work took a different form in Virginia, which has been a right to work state since 1947. In the 2015 and 2016 sessions, legislators approved a measure to place a question before voters on whether they want to see right to work placed in the state constitution. Proponents of this measure said that it was necessary to ensure that it would be immune from future legislative repeal. Having this as a constitutional amendment would also foreclose the possibility that the attorney general could refuse to defend it in court. Opponents contended that it was unnecessary because right to work was already state law.
Legislators have also introduced right to work bills in other states, but West Virginia is the last state to enact such a law. In Pennsylvania, legislators introduced a set of bills that would make the commonwealth a right to work state, but none has advanced through committee. There have been efforts in Ohio to enact a right to work law, but Governor John Kasich has said that he wasn’t focused on this issue. In that state, one of the bills would allow government workers to opt out of a union, but would not apply to private sector workers.
The recent trend has been for one or two states to enact right to work laws every few years. There have been no successful efforts to repeal these laws once they are in place. It is likely that we will see the number of right to work states edge up towards 30 before the end of the decade.
Depending on how you stand on labor issues, this is either an advance for worker freedom or a blow to workers’ rights. What do you think about right to work laws?
*Updated 12/13/16: A previous version mistakenly used "join" instead of "pay"