Do You Know What ‘Right to Work’ Means?

I saw an odd conundrum while watching the recent Republican debate on Fox News: The crowd cheered when Newt Gingrich said he didn’t support extension of unemployment benefits because “I don’t believe people should get paid for doing nothing,” and they also applauded when candidates expressed support for Right to Work laws. In both cases, the crowd’s support seemed to be based on a sense of fairness. Then I realized that the crowd did not fully understand Right to Work laws. Despite the patriotic name, Right to Work is as fundamentally unfair as someone getting money for nothing.

The common perception about Right to Work laws is that they simply say a person cannot be forced to join a union.


Federal law has prohibited workers from being required to join a union since 1947. (See Taft-Hartley Act below.) No worker in any state can be forced to join a union.

But 22 states have additional Right to Work laws specifying that an individual can’t be forced to pay union dues or even “fair share,” a form of union dues for nonmembers. That sounds fair, right? If you don’t believe in unions, you certainly don’t want to pay them a dollar of your income.

However, the non-union workers receive the same pay, working conditions, and benefits. The union members worked to form the union, paid dues for years, used their power to negotiate better salaries, developed safe working conditions, and lobbied for favorable legislation. Yet new workers can step in and reap the ongoing benefits without paying dues.

Something for nothing.

For Right to Work to be fair, a non-union worker should have to go to his employer and negotiate his own salary and benefits. Of course, studies show that those wages would be lower.

But if people oppose unions and don’t want to pay dues, they should be true to their values and negotiate their contracts as individuals. That would be a stance worth cheering about.

Additional reading

This editorial takes a legal view on why opposing Right to Work is the true conservative stance:

Text of the Taft-Hartley Act:

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