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Labor union members protest Michigan Gov. Rick Snyder's proposed budget cuts in 2011. Bill Pugliano/Getty Images

Why unions are so worried about right-to-work laws

Jana Kasperkevic Feb 24, 2017
Labor union members protest Michigan Gov. Rick Snyder's proposed budget cuts in 2011. Bill Pugliano/Getty Images

A national right-to-work bill has been introduced in the House of Representatives, and though previous attempts have failed, a Republican-controlled Congress and White House means a law is a real possibility. And that’s a threat to labor unions, who are dependent on the dues that such a law would curtail.

“Similar legislation has been introduced in the past, but we believe that this year, the legislation could garner more support than ever before,” Leacy Burke, a spokeswoman for South Carolina Republican Rep. Joe Wilson, told the Huffington Post

Even if the bill should fail, more than half of the states have enacted their own right-to-work legislation, and a handful more have introduced bills. As U.S. lawmakers gear up for a right-to-work debate, here’s a quick overview of the issue.

What is right to work?

Right-to-work laws prohibit labor unions and employers from requiring workers to pay union dues as a condition of employment. This means that employees who work at a unionized workplace and do not support the union or do not want to be part of the union can opt out of paying dues.

In states that are not right-to-work states, workers hired at a unionized workplace can be required to join a union and pay union dues.

Why is this important?

First of all, money. Union dues can add up to a few hundred dollars a year per person. For example, the United Automobile, Aerospace and Agricultural Implement Workers of America (UAW) describes its monthly dues as being equivalent to about two hours’ worth of pay, or $50. Dues differ from union to union, and each union determines how to use its funds differently. In addition to spending dues on maintaining the union and negotiating contracts, unions can also use the funds for awareness campaigns on pending legislation, proposed bills and to build up a strike fund, which could be used to support workers if they opt to go on the strike.  

Another — and arguably the most controversial — budget item for labor unions is political campaign donations. This brings us to the second reason why right to work is an important issue: power and influence.


Historically, unions have been powerful actors in U.S. politics, both locally and nationwide. According to the Wall Street Journal, labor unions spent $108.2 million by end of August on 2016 political campaigns. That’s up 38 percent from 2012. A majority of those donations have been made to Democratic candidates.

Since not all union members lean Democrat, some may oppose union leaders using their dues to support specific candidates or issues. In an attempt to find middle ground, unions have set up what they call non-members dues, which they say cover costs associated with collective bargaining, negotiating and enforcing a union contract. These dues are also sometimes referred to as “fair share” fees and can be just a fraction of what regular union dues are.

Who supports right-to-work legislation?

Among those who support right-to-work legislation are employers. They say employees should be able to chose whether they want to be part of the union or not. Union representatives, however, say that the reason employers support right to work is because if fewer people in the workplace are part of the union, the union becomes less effective.

Employees with different political leanings than union leadership who do not wish to be a part of the union also tend to support right-to-work legislation.

Who opposes right-to-work legislation?

Unions, obviously. Membership dues help keep unions funded and enable them to be proactive on workers’ rights issues such as overtime, minimum wage and paid sick leave. Unions representatives argue that in states without right-to-work laws, workers tend to be better paid. According to AFL-CIO, America’s largest federation of labor unions, workers in right-to-work states make about $6,109 less a year than workers in other states.

Unions are right to worry about the increased push for right-to-work legislation. Labor organizations have experienced waning support from the American public for decades. Last year, union membership reached an all-time low, with just 10.7 percent of the U.S. workforce belonging to a union. That’s equivalent to about 14.6 million workers, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics.

AFL-CIO, which represent 12.5 million workers, is already feeling the pinch. As February was coming to a close, the federation announced that it was restructuring and laid off several dozen staff members, Bloomberg reported

Additionally, union members who like being a part of the union often oppose right-to-work legislation. In their opinion, those workers who opt out of paying dues but benefit from union contract negotiations are freeloaders and need to pay their “fair share.”

How many states are right-to-work states?

As of early February, there are 28 right-to-work states. According to the National Right to Work Legal Defense Foundation, Missouri and Kentucky were the most recent states to enact right-to-work legislation. Other states where right-to-work legislation is currently under consideration include Ohio and Colorado.

Not all states have had success passing right-to-work legislation. On Feb. 16, New Hampshire lawmakers rejected the right-to-work bill in a 200-to-177 vote.

The 28 right-to-work states are:

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

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