California is not a "right-to-work" state. This means that in California, it is legal for employers to make union membership a condition of employment. This is not the case throughout the country, where in 2018, more than half the states were right-to-work states.
Labor unions have had a stronghold on the American workplace for more than a century. In that time, unions have been publicly recognized for the role they play in protecting workers and enabling them to pursue safer, healthier working conditions. Critics have also recognized some labor unions’ propensity for corruption and how, despite generally operating in workers’ best interests, unions’ practice of collecting dues can create an undue financial hardship on workers.
At its most basic level, “right-to-work” means it is illegal for employers to require that their employees join unions as a condition of employment. The philosophy behind this type of law is that employees have the right to work and earn a living and that requiring them to join and participate in labor unions infringes on this right.
Fully understanding how right-to-work laws affect employees, their employers and generally, the markets they serve, requires an in-depth understanding of right-to-work pros and cons. Although right-to-work laws grant workers the autonomy to determine for themselves whether they want to be part of unions, these laws can undermine workers’ ability to collectively bargain for more favorable working conditions by weakening unions. The very purpose of unions is to facilitate collective bargaining, the practice of workers joining together to discuss their needs, articulate these needs to company leaders and negotiate work agreements that meet these needs. Unions can bargain for any type of worker need, including:
- Higher wages.
- Shorter, or differently, scheduled shifts.
- Healthcare coverage.
- Medical and family leave.
- Representation meetings between company leaders.
- Comprehensive safety training.
- Safer workplaces.
- Cleaner workplaces.
The Wagner Act of 1935
One of the first federal laws to govern union activities in the United States was the National Labor Relations Act, also known as the Wagner Act. Under the Wagner Act, employers had the option to operate in one of these ways:
- Closed shop. In a closed shop, being part of the union is a condition of employment. Even employees who join the company as union members and later leave the union must be fired for their lack of union membership.
- Open shop. In an open shop, employees cannot be required to join the union or to pay union dues, nor can they be terminated for choosing to join the union or to participate in union activities.
- Union shop. In a union shop, new hires are not required to join the union immediately upon joining the company, but they are expected to join the union within a specified period of time.
- Agency shop. In an agency shop, employees are not required to officially join a labor union but they are required to pay union dues.
The Taft-Hartley Act of 1947
Later, the Taft-Hartley Act, also known as the Labor Management Relations Act, repealed some parts of the Wagner Act. Specifically, the Taft-Hartley Act outlawed the operation of closed shops as defined by the Wagner Act and made it possible for state governments to outlaw agency and union shops as well. This portion of the Taft-Hartley Act was the nation’s first right-to-work legislation.
List of Right-to-Work States
There were 28 right-to-work states as of 2018. New right-to-work laws are proposed, passed and rejected regularly throughout the country, so the list of right-to-work states in 2018 might not look the same as the list of right-to-work states in 2020 or 2025. One recent example of changing right-to-work legislation occurred in 2018, when Missouri voters struck down the state’s right-to-work law. In some states, including Kentucky and Ohio, local governments have the right to pass their own right-to-work laws despite their states not having these types of laws in place.
The list of right-to-work states in 2018 is:
- North Carolina.
- North Dakota.
- South Carolina.
- South Dakota.
- West Virginia.
Right-to-work laws do not ban labor unions. In every one of the right-to-work states, labor unions can, and do, operate in multiple industries.
Right-to-Work Pros and Cons
Like most other issues in the workplace, there are numerous right-to-work pros and cons. The arguments in favor of right-to-work laws include:
- Right-to-work laws allow workers to avoid making financial contributions to political candidates they do not support. This is because unions often support specific politicians and contribute to their campaigns with money collected through union dues.
- Right-to-work laws eliminate the barrier-to-service union dues can impose.
- Right-to-work laws open projects and jobs to competitive bidding, which in turn can increase worker wages.
- Right-to-work laws can keep labor unions accountable for their actions because dissatisfied workers have the freedom to leave their unions and take action against them.
There are also many arguments against right-to-work laws. These arguments include:
- Right-to-work laws create free riders – workers who are not part of unions but who enjoy the benefits unions work hard to secure.
- Right-to-work laws reduce unions’ power in the workplace, granting employers greater power over employees.
- Right-to-work laws reduce union presence, which, in turn, reduces workers’ ability to correct the grievances they have with their employers.
Opposition to Right-to-Work Laws
At first glance, it can be difficult to imagine why any worker would oppose right-to-work laws. After all, these laws curtail an individual’s right to work without being required to pay union dues. California is one of the most pro-worker states in the country and has a strong labor presence.
Indisputable facts about states with right-to-work laws include:
- Worker wages in these states are 3 percent lower than wages in states without such laws.
- States with right-to-work laws have 50 percent more worker injuries than those without.
- Employers in right-to-work states spend an average of $2,500 less per worker on training and professional development.
- Employer-sponsored pensions and healthcare packages are 5 percent and 2.5 percent lower, respectively, in right-to-work states.
Federal Labor Union Protection
Labor unions are not regulated only by right-to-work laws. They are also protected by federal antidiscrimination laws. Employers may not discriminate against employees for joining unions, participating in union activities or sympathizing with union sentiments. This means employers may not use an employee’s union history or attitude toward labor unions as a reason to:
- Avoid hiring her.
- Refuse to promote her.
- Harass her at work.
- Fire her.
- Retaliate against her in any way.
In the workplace, retaliation is defined as any action taken to punish an employee for undesirable behavior. This could be a poor performance review, demoting the employee, docking the employee’s pay or subjecting the employee to harassment and other forms of mistreatment after finding out that she has engaged in union activities. Employees have the right to organize freely and the right to engage in certain protected activities in an effort to negotiate better working conditions. These protected concerted activities include:
- Discussing workplace conditions with colleagues.
- Organizing a peaceful protest at the workplace.
- Signing a petition for changed workplace conditions.
- Refusing to work in unsafe conditions.
- Discussing workplace conditions with a regulatory agency or the media.
Many union activities are protected by the National Labor Relations Act, which is enforced by the National Labor Relations Board. These activities are protected across the United States, regardless of whether a state has a right-to-work law in place or not. Although California has many worker protection laws that exceed federal protections, such as its antidiscrimination and family leave laws, the state does not have additional protections for unions or their individual members.
Read More: How to Change Labor Unions
California is not a right-to-work state.