Recent events in mid-western states have caused a setback to organized labor. Indiana and Michigan have recently adopted so-called right-to-work laws. Unfortunately, there is very little understanding of what the so-called right-to-work law does.
While watching TV recently, I observed a local attorney on television who remarked that because Texas was a right-to-work state an employer could terminate an employee at will. It is clear that even an attorney does not have an accurate understanding of what “right-to-work” laws do.
First of all, the right-to-work law is misnamed in that it gives no one a right to be employed. In fact, right-to-work laws have just the opposite effect because they give inadequate protection to non-union workers and are grossly unfair to the unions themselves. The local attorney was correct in that the State of Texas is what we call an “at will” employment state--which simply means an employer can fire an employee for no reason and is only prohibited from terminating an employee for certain prohibited reasons. Those are generally the reasons contained in federal law. The only state prohibition against termination is terminating an employee for failure to commit an unlawful act.
The Texas right-to-work law, as well as those in other states, simply provides that no employee can be contractually or otherwise forced to pay union dues. The reason such laws are unfair to unions requires a brief understanding of the federal labor laws.
Under federal laws, unions may organize by receiving a majority vote among a particular group of employees called a bargaining unit. The majority must vote to bring in union representation. Once the employees elect to have a union represent them, the union is then obligated to represent everyone within the bargaining unit. The representation is mandatory for every employee within that unit without regard to whether or not the individual pays dues to the union.
As an example, assume a non-union member is unfairly terminated or disciplined and desires to file a grievance under the union contract. The union is obligated to pursue the grievance on behalf of the non-union employee even though the employee is a “free-rider,” enjoying all the benefits of the union contract but not participating in financial support of the union.
The situation described above is very like the citizen who would elect to pay no taxes, should he or she have that option, and yet the government would be obligated to furnish police, fire and other governmental services to them just the same as were furnished to taxpaying citizens. I doubt any rational person would agree that such a situation would be fair to citizens who pay taxes. And the same applies to unions. The “free-rider” who elects not to pay union dues because of a right-to-work law enjoys all the benefits of the union’s representation and bargaining and yet has a free ride.