What do right-to-work laws actually do?

The controversy over new legislation in Michigan is drawing new attention to these statutes and their impact on unions and businesses.

By Bruce Kennedy Dec 12, 2012 10:29AM

Image: Construction workers ( image100/Corbis)It's been a momentous week in the history of U.S. labor relations. On Tuesday, Michigan lawmakers voted to ban compulsory union fees in a state known for its strong labor unions, especially within the auto industry.


As a result, Michigan will soon become the 24th state with right-to-work laws -- which
BusinessDictionary.com defines as "legislation that allows a person to work at any place of employment without being forced to join a union as a condition of employment."


And while no one seems to disagree with that definition, there's widespread debate on both sides of the political spectrum about what right-to-work laws actually do.

Supporters of right-to-work laws say they are fighting against "forced unionism," which can hurt big and small businesses, while at the same time making states more attractive to potential employers.


Right-to-work laws "have a proven track record of encouraging economic growth," says blogger Will Collins on the National Right to Work Legal Defense Foundation website.

But right-to-work statutes, according to the Washington Post's WonkBlog, "are broadly understood to erode the influence and power of organized labor -- if unions have harder time collecting money for the services they offer, they’ll have fewer resources to work with."

The Roanoke-based law firm of Frith & Ellerman, which specializes in business litigation, says the term "right-to-work" has led many workers in Virginia to believe those laws protect employees' jobs. But according to the firm's web site, the opposite is true.

"You have very little protection when it comes to your job," they note. "Unless you have an employment contract that defines how you can be fired, under Virginia law, you can be fired for any reason other than your race, age, gender or religious beliefs."


President Obama waded into the controversy on Monday during a visit to Michigan -- saying the right-to-work laws "don't have to do with economics; they have everything to do with politics."


And there certainly is a political divide on the issue -- pitting traditionally pro-union Democrats against Big Business-supporting Republicans on a state and national level.


But the reality is that, as in American politics, there is now a nearly-even split between U.S. states with and without right-to-work laws.

The unions, meanwhile, are looking for ways to fight back."Symbolically, it's a huge setback," United Auto Workers President Bob King told the Wall Street Journal, following the legislative vote in Michigan. "Maybe it will awaken a sleeping giant."

More from Money Now

Dec 12, 2012 9:50PM
Where I work, a union worker can turn a one day job into a two week job.  With time off, breaks, union meetings, and a general attitude of "you can't make me do that", and "the union says I don't have to do that", we can hire a contractor to complete the job in one day, with all of the safety procedures followed and a terrific "yes I can" attitude.  Just saying.... 
Dec 12, 2012 5:20PM
One thing that this "reporter" fails to mention is that, in a right to work state, if you are terminated without cause then your employer must pay you unemployment benefits.  No employer wants to pay unemployment benefits ever but even more so in this economy where they will most likely pay out the maximum number of weeks.  Yes folks, employers have to pay a portion of your unemployment benefits.  That is why they always contest your benefits when you apply for them.  While unions did a wonderful thing for this country a century or so ago today they don't do the majority of us any good.  The dues are so high that any increase in wages ends up in the union coffers.  Sure they will protect your job.  They will also protect the job of the lazy bum who works next to you and doesn't follow proper safety procedures which causes you to get seriously injured and become unable to do your job.  I live and work in a right to work state and I always negotiate my own salary and benefits with any prospective employer.  I do a great job, have great professional references, and use this information to my advantage.  You want a better wage then show a history of doing a better job and you will be able to negotiate for it.  If your employer treats you badly then take your skills to the competition.  If you are good at your job then somebody will hire you.  No more unions.  Unions are a big part of the reason that GM went bankrupt.  They are a huge part of the reason Hostess closed it's doors.  They are one of the biggest reasons for the outsourcing of manufacturing jobs overseas.  If employers take too much advantage of workers then workers can always re-organize and strike.  You don't need a union to do that you just need a majority of your co-workers who are willing to walk off the job in protest.  That is all the unions were when they started.  They were a group who worked together to force employers who were not paying employees enough to pay a living wage and provide a safe work environment.  We now have a federal gov't that guarantees us those things. The time of unions is past.
Dec 13, 2012 6:02AM
if union made is so great why is everything we buy "foreign made" ?  
Dec 13, 2012 8:55AM
In the country of freedom, no one, should be pushing to force anyone to do anything that does not violate another persons rights. Unions have been spoiled for far to long. Even a union fool should be able to get it.
Dec 13, 2012 11:39AM

55 years old and never belonged to a union, i have had great paying jobs and always been able to work my way up.


no union, work hard more pay and they keep you. work sucks they let you go


union, work hard they keep you, work sucks they still keep you.


why would you want a union when all you have to do is work hard

Dec 13, 2012 12:00AM
As a retired (at age 55)  IBEW member I am a firm believer in unions in the private sector. However I also believe every individual needs to be able to chose their own poison - union protections or fly by the seat of their pants. I also do not like my dues going to the support of anti constitution (especially 2nd amendment) cry baby liberals. Public sector unions should be disbanded completely as they hold the taxpayers hostage, not some billion dollar corporation. Teachers unions are the worst, for example the state I reside in parents have the option of sending their children to charter schools with taxpayer dollars and there are waiting lists at these schools (What does that tell you?). However our democratic governor has made it harder for these charter schools to operate and expand. The reason for this we know all to well. Less money would be given to the democratic party candidates because the teachers at charter school are non union, but better teachers as proven by the waiting lists.
Dec 13, 2012 1:32PM

If the union is great why would anyone not want to join? Afterall, they are not doing away with unions, just giving workers the FREEDOM to choose.


Have you seen the union thugs on TV? Dumb and violent.

Dec 13, 2012 5:17PM

I worked at Electric Boat Co. (EB) of General Dynamics Corp fo over 32 years. The union representation was the UAW, most commonly referred to as United Against Work. Our Union president at the time was EB hater, regardless of what the company offered , he was out to get the and make them pay/ Some time in 1980, the negotiations faltered and it seemed like a stroke was immanent. Well, on a Friday', when some of the union members returned from lunch, many of then already knew there was going to be a strike as they returned to work with Airline tickets ready to fly wherever they were going "JOB SHOPPING;. People in the industry knew what this terminology is, and a beg of UAW men and woman ere off  and running to the Midwest and South to Newport News,,Va.. and Biloxi , Miss.

When the strike was finally settled some nine or more months, workers were required to pay union dues in order to keep their jobs. I and

many of us were not too happy with  this edict as we felt it was discrimination. But discretion being the better part of valor and stayed till I retired.

I was very glad to see that the Union had been defeated not only in Michigan but also in Wisconsin. When people start to realize that they are not waxing fat from belonging to the union and see that the union upper echelon are the ones who are reaping the benefits of their unon dues, they perhaps will think more than twice before advocating joining a union.


Dec 13, 2012 5:55PM
Dec 13, 2012 7:06PM
Union membership or no union membership, it should be up to the individual BUT unions still must represent non-union employees if the workforce has elected union representation.  That means union reps arguing for non-members jobs in cases of disciplinary events by management, that means negotiating pay raises, vacation time,  and other benefits for members and non-members alike. All of this is required under the law.  What is not required is that all who benefit from union negotiations, interventions , and protections pay their share of the costs of the defacto representation they receive.  In effect, this is little more than legal theft of services.  Non-union members should either pay a fee for the services they receive or negotiate their own deals and protect their own jobs with no required protections or services from the union.
Dec 15, 2012 12:33AM
Yo! Proud to be union 555:  You must really be stupid to think your or my dues are not used in the election process. You are right they do not go directly to the candidates, that in itself is illegal. It does go to sending representatives to rallies and boards in state capitols and DC to prop up the anti constitution liberals during the election process. Those same dues are used by the union to print their propaganda and political signs, for example - the professional firefighters "IFFA for Obama" in this past election cycle. Wake up man, the private sector unions do good things for the rank and file, but in all states, the state, county and city workers unions are running up our property taxes and bankrupting local governments. Just look at DMVs in all 50 states, the employees are a laughing stock portrayed by comedians everywhere. You mention the federal government being a hugh corporation and you're right again, but the people who work there have a choice of who they work for. It's not my job to see that they earn a decent wage. If they need a living wage, they should find private sector work. Oh yah, that would mean they might really have to earn their paycheck, f_cken losers. 
Aug 27, 2013 6:35PM
there was once a time when unions were needed,  now however all they do is give workers a reason to be even more lazy than they usually are.  If a worker doesn't work hard and produce quality work, they should be fired. That is why so many US companies , such as the auto industry are in such bad shape. Why would a worker work hard when the union keeps them from being fired or even penilized in any way for poor work. The time for the union has long passed, buisnesses should be able to keep there best workers and cut the riff raff what just want to collect a paycheck.
Dec 20, 2012 7:36PM
Socialism does not work over a long period of time,  whether it be government or union. Socialism is the best sounds great (everyone is equal) but over time it seeks the lowest level of the group.
Dec 12, 2012 1:49PM

Wages go in the toilet with "RIGHT TO WORK".You get what you pay for.Pay people

minimum wage and you get the minimum.I gave all my employees A $1000

Christmas bonus.My employees are like family and I want to keep them.Paye crap

and you get crap and high turnover.It`s amazing that some businesses never learn.

Dec 13, 2012 2:27PM

Just remember, these laws do not concern only union people!

Right to work, and terminate without cause can and does create a workplace

that allows bosses to threaten YOUR job if you do not do what they want.

And what they want may be for YOU to do something illegal, or unethical.

(Remember Enron and all those other companies? It was not just the high levels that cooked the books, lower level employees had to go along with the fraud of the higher ups.) 

Expect a lot more fraud, as these laws get passed.

Dec 12, 2012 10:55AM

Life is great!


Chris Van Hollen & Elizabeth Warren in 2016 & 2020!


God bless Mom & Pop stores!


God bless unions and living wages!


DIE big and unregulated corporations and DIE Ayn Rand Capitalism, DIE!


God bless America!

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