Learn About "Right to Work" States and Laws

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The U.S. right to work laws are sometimes confused with that of employment at will or it simply doesn't mean what some think it does. For example, it doesn't mean that all U.S. citizens are entitled to work if they wish. While that's generally true, it's not what right to work means in legalese.

In legalese, right to work more specifically means that otherwise-qualified employees are entitled to work in unionized workplaces, without joining the associated unions or paying regular union dues.

But right to work (nonunion) employees might have to pay unions for the portion of dues spent representing them, such as pursuing grievances on their behalf.

Right to work employees who are part of a "bargaining unit" have the right to union representation that is equal to those in the same bargaining unit who've joined the union. A bargaining unit is a group of employees who have similar work duties, share a workplace, and presumably have similar interests when it comes to pay, hours, and other working conditions.

In other words, under the right to work principle, workers don't have to join unions or pay regular union dues to land or keep jobs. They may also cancel union membership at any time, without losing their jobs. But they are still entitled to fair and equal union representation while working in bargaining units of unionized workplaces. However, they might have to pay unions for the cost of such representation.

Right to Work States and Laws

At the Federal level, the National Right to Work Act, still undergoing congressional approval at this writing, will repeal provisions in all other Federal labor laws that allow unionized workplaces to fire employees for failing to pay union dues. Meanwhile, the Labor Management Relations Act (nicknamed the Taft-Hartley Act after the congressmen who introduced it) allows states to enact right to work laws.

In turn, states might allow local jurisdictions (e.g., cities and counties) to enact their own right to work laws.

State right to work laws essentially requires unionized workplaces to become "open shops". Open shops must allow employees to work, whether or not they join the associated unions or pay regular dues.

At this writing, the following are right to work states, meaning that they have specific right to work laws.

  • Alabama
  • Arizona
  • Arkansas
  • Florida
  • Georgia
  • Idaho
  • Iowa
  • Kansas
  • Louisiana
  • Mississippi
  • Nebraska
  • Nevada
  • North Carolina
  • North Dakota
  • Oklahoma
  • South Carolina
  • South Dakota
  • Tennessee
  • Texas
  • Utah
  • Virginia
  • Wyoming

To read the right to work laws for the states above, start at the U.S. map provided by the National Right to Work Committee. If your state isn't listed above (or on the map), it means that it doesn't have a specific right to work law. But its other laws might have a similar provision. For example, New Hampshire's labor laws have a provision that prohibits any person from forcing another to join a union as a condition of employment (paraphrased).

Even if your state doesn't have a right to work law or similar provision, the U.S. Supreme Court has ruled that collective bargaining agreements may not require workers to join unions.

Collective bargaining agreements may only require nonmembers to pay the proven proportion of dues that unions spend to represent them. Nonmembers don't have to pay such costs until they are explained and may first challenge them.

To find out more about your state's right to work law or a similar provision, or your similar rights at the Federal level, start by contacting your state's labor office.

The information above is for private-sector employees in general. Different right to work laws and court rulings might apply to government, education, railway, airline and other workers. For more information, see the frequently-asked questions by the  National Right to Work Committee.

If you think that your employer or union has violated a right to work law, the National Right to Work Legal Defense Foundation might advise or represent you for free.

Otherwise, you might consider consulting a private attorney.

Right to Work offers general information only and is not intended as legal advice. Neither the author nor publisher are engaged in rendering legal services. Please see an attorney for legal advice. Because laws vary by state and are subject to change at both the state and Federal levels, neither the author nor publisher guarantees the accuracy of this article. Should you act based on this information, you do so at your sole risk. Neither the author nor publisher shall have any liability arising from your decision to act on this information.