What is The “Right To Work”?

LR-Conference-People-Handshake-Close-upWith a bill signed into law last month, Wisconsin became the nation’s 25th “right to work” state.  In this context, right-to-work means the right of an employee of a unionized company to retain his job even if he chooses not to join or support the union.

The Taft-Hartley Act of 1947, which governs relations between employers and labor unions, permits the parties to bargain over union security, an issue which is of paramount importance to a union.  A union shop clause in a collective bargaining agreement obligates the employer to terminate the employment of any employee who does not join the union, usually after the first 30 days of employment.  A union shop clause cannot compel an employee to actually enroll as a union member because of the constitutional right of free association, but the employee can be compelled to pay dues and assessments that are uniformly required of all bargaining unit members.

Union shop clauses are usually accompanied by dues check-off clauses, under which the employer takes an employee’s monthly union dues as a payroll deduction and remits all employees’ due directly to the union, thus assuring the union of a steady flow of dues without the need for collection efforts.  Employers typically view union shop clauses and dues check-off clauses as a matter between the union and the employees, and include them in collective bargaining agreements if there is indemnification by the union against employee claims.

However, as a reform of the earlier Wagner Act which seemed at the time to be overly protective of unions, the Taft-Hartley Act allows states to enact legislation which prohibits union shop clauses.  Such a state law would make a union shop clause an illegal subject of bargaining.  The right-to-work laws do not prevent employees from joining or supporting the union, but there is no risk of loss of employment if they do not choose to do so and refuse to pay dues.

In addition to Wisconsin, Indiana and Michigan are the most recent states to enact right-to-work statutes. There are no right-to-work states in the Northeast; the nearest right-to-work state to Connecticut is Virginia.  To the author’s knowledge, no proposed right-to-work legislation has been introduced in the Connecticut legislature in many years, and it is extremely unlikely in the foreseeable future.