Learn About Right-to-Work Laws

In which states do they apply?

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In the U.S., state right-to-work laws pertain to labor unions and workers at a company. Specifically, the right-to-work means that employees are entitled to work in unionized workplaces without actually joining the union or paying regular union dues. They may also cancel their union membership at any time, without losing their jobs. But they are still entitled to fair and equal union representation if they are part of a "bargaining unit" at the company—that is, a group of employees who have similar work duties, share a workplace, and presumably have similar interests when it comes to wages, hours, and working conditions.

In other words, right-to-work laws essentially require unionized workplaces to become "open shops," where union membership is optional, in contrast to the traditional "closed shop," in which union membership is mandatory. While regular dues are not taken out of their paychecks, the right-to-work (nonunion) employees are still covered by the union; however, they might have to pay for the cost of the union representing them in specific ways, such as pursuing grievances on their behalf.

Although it sounds similar, the right-to-work principle is not the same as employment at will, which means an employee can be terminated at any time without any reason, explanation, or warning; nor is it a guarantee of work or ruling that an employee is entitled to work. 

Right-to-Work History and Controversy

Currently, no federal right-to-work law exists. A bill establishing one, the National Right-to-Work Act, was introduced in the House of Representatives on February 1, 2017, by two Republican congressmen, Steve King of Iowa and Joe Wilson of South Carolina; it would repeal provisions in all other federal labor laws that allow unionized workplaces to fire employees for failing to pay union dues.

Instead, right-to-work laws exist on the individual state level. The Labor Management Relations Act of 1947, nicknamed the Taft-Hartley Act, allowed states to enact right-to-work laws. Taft-Hartley did not allow local jurisdictions (e.g., cities and counties) within a state to enact their own right-to-work legislation. However, in 2016, the Sixth Circuit Court of Appeals upheld the right of local governments to enact local right-to-work laws in Kentucky, Ohio, and the other states of its jurisdiction.

As the number of states passing right-to-work laws has grown in the 21st century, the issue has grown increasingly controversial. Right-to-work proponents argue that it expands workers' rights – specifically, the right to decide to join a union – and keeps unions accountable because they must prove the advantages of membership.

Opponents argue that right-to-work encourages freeloading – because a worker can enjoy union representation without paying dues – and is essentially a roundabout way to undermine unions in a workplace, depriving them of revenue, membership numbers, and, ultimately, their bargaining power with management. Advocates say right-to-work preserves individual freedoms; critics call it "the right to work – for less."

Right-to-Work States

As of 2018, 27 states have adopted right-to-work laws. They are: 

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

Other states have similar legislation on their books. 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.

Additional Rulings and Rights 

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 they 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. 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.

Note: The information in this article generally applies to private-sector employees. Different laws and court rulings might apply to government, education, railway, airline, and other workers. 

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.