Fighting to Free Workers' Paychecks from Union Bosses: Advancing the Right to Work

There is a battle brewing in several states that is going to get very heated very soon. At issue is the question of whether or not workers have a “right to work” at unionized companies without being required to pay union dues.


Last week, a Minnesota state representative introduced legislation to give voters in 2012 the ability to vote whether to make Minnesota a “right to work” state, or continue giving unions the right to have workers fired for not paying union dues or fees.

Although Minnesota appears to be the first state to take action, according to Steven Greenhouse of the New York Times, others are contemplating similar action:

Republican lawmakers in Indiana, Maine, Missouri and seven other states plan to introduce legislation that would bar private-sector unions from forcing workers they represent to pay dues or fees, reducing the flow of funds into union treasuries.

* Other states are believed to include: Michigan, Montana, New Hampshire, Oregon, and Wisconsin.

Already, though, unions in Minnesota are crying out saying the measure is designed to “destroy unions.”

“This bad bill is intended to destroy unions and every worker’s human right to bargain collectively for a better life,” AFSCME Council 5 said on its website. “Let’s stop this rip-off and continue to strive for a Minnesota where all labor is rewarded with wages that can raise a family, health care if people get sick and a retirement that’s dignified.”

As a former union representative (in a Right-to-Work state), I’ve written this post to serve as a primer to better acquaint you with the Right-to-Work issue as you begin to hear more and more about it. Hopefully, this will serve to help clear up what is bound to be some very heated (and misleading) rhetoric (like AFSCME’s hyperbole above).


What is Right to Work?

Ever since 1947, when Congress passed (over Harry Truman’s veto) the Taft-Hartley Act, which amended to the 1935 National Labor Relations Act, there have been two types of states.

Note: As the NLRA does not cover airline or railroad employees, this does not apply to them.

The first type of state is called a “Non-Right-to-Work” (or forced unionism) state, which allows unions to negotiate contracts with companies that require union dues and/or fees to be paid. If a worker refuses to pay union dues or fees (often referred to as agency fees), or falls behind, the union can demand that the worker be fired from the company. The company, by contract, must comply and fire the worker.

The other type of state is a “Right-to-Work” state that forbids workers from being fired for non-payment of union dues or fees.

From 1935 through 1947, there were no Right-to-Work laws. However, there are now 22 “Right-to-Work” states that give workers the “right to work” without being required to pay union dues and/or fees, and there are 28 “Non-Right-to-Work” states that allow workers to be fired for non-payment of union dues and/or fees.

In a forced-unionism states, it is legal for unions to obtain “union (income) security clauses” in their contracts, like this one:


All present employees who are members of the Union on the effective date of this Agreement shall remain members of the Union in good standing as a condition of employment. All present employees who are not members of the Union and all employees who are hired hereafter shall become and remain members in good standing of the Union as a condition of employment on and after the thirty-first (31st) day following the beginning of their employment or on or after the thirty-first (31st) day following the effective date of this Agreement, whichever is later. The failure of any person to become a member of the Union at the prescribed time shall obligate the Employer, upon written notice from the Union of such and, further, that Union membership was available to such person on the same terms and conditions generally available to other members, to forthwith discharge such person. Further the failure of any person to maintain his Union membership in good standing as required herein shall, upon written notice to the Employer by the Union to such effect, obligate the Employer to discharge such person. [Emphasis added.]

Source: Collective Bargaining Agreement


In Right-to-Work states the above clause would be illegal. There is nothing hidden about it. It really is that simple.

As the vast majority of unionized workers never voted to become unionized (but went to work at jobs where unions were already in place), Right-to-Work laws are a serious threat to union bosses. They do not, however, “destroy unions” as AFSCME claims above. Rather, Right-to-Work laws can cause unions to lose income if the unions are poorly run, undemocratic or ineffective, as workers are given a choice whether or not to pay for the unions’ services.

Obviously, to union bosses, unions feel entitled to collect dues from 100% of the represented employees since the union is, as the collective bargaining agent, required to represent the non-dues paying worker as well as the dues-paying member.

Lastly, Right-to-Work laws do cause some unions to conduct constant internal “organizing campaigns” to recruit the non-paying workers to become members and to pay dues. Arguably, this is a financial strain on those unions who do not have good relations with the represented workers.

Unions will often argue that Right-to-Work laws are Right-to-Work-for-less laws, implying that workers in Right-to-Work states earn less than those in forced unionism states. While that may have been true years ago, the shift in jobs to Right-to-Work states over the last few decades has caused that to shift, as noted by this November 2010 data from the National Institute for Labor Relations Research:


Despite all of the rhetoric that is likely to occur during the debate in the states over Right-to-Work vs. forced unionism, the simple question that should be asked and answered is: Should unions have the right to compel people to pay them who would choose not to if given the choice? That is the whole issue in its entirety.

In that regard, it is worth noting that Samuel Gompers, founder of the American Federation of Labor was a firm believer of freedom over compulsion. As he stated at his last AF of L convention:

I want to urge devotion to the fundamentals of human liberty – the principles of voluntarism.  No lasting gain has ever come from compulsion. If we seek to force, we but tear apart that which, united, is invincible. . . . I want to say to you, men and women of the American labor movement, do not reject the cornerstone upon which labor’s structure has been builded – but base your all upon voluntary principles and illumine your every  problem by consecrated devotion to that highest of all purposes – human well being in the fullest, widest, deepest sense.” [Emphasis added.]


“I bring reason to your ears, and, in language as plain as ABC, hold up truth to your eyes.”Thomas Paine, December 23, 1776


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