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  • Writer's pictureLeslie A. Farber

Right-to-Work Laws Affect the Public and Private Sectors

Updated: Jul 2, 2019

union members

In early August, Missouri residents voted by a 2-to-1 ratio to defeat a state “right-to-work” law barring the collection of fees from private-sector workers who choose not to become union members. Republican lawmakers had approved the law last year, but it had been put on hold pending the ballot referendum.

The vote, which was the first time a right-to-work law was struck down at the polls, was seen as a crucial victory for organized labor following a series of setbacks. Currently, 27 states across the country have enacted right-to-work laws, including five since 2012, allowing employees in private-sector unionized workplaces to opt out of union membership and fees.

This past June, in Janus v. AFSCME, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that requiring public-sector workers who do not join unions to pay fees violates their free speech rights. The case affects a large swath of employees, including police and firefighters, teachers, public health workers, and municipal employees among others. It is also significant because the public sector has a high rate of unionization, representing more than a third of all such workers in 2017. The landmark decision is expected to deprive public worker unions of millions of dollars and could decrease their political clout.

What is a right-to-work law? Here in the U.S., it refers to any state law forbidding various union security measures under which workers are required to join a labor union within a specified time after they begin employment. The Taft–Hartley Act of 1947 prohibited arrangements where employers agree to hire only unionized workers. However, the act encouraged the passage of state right-to-work laws by allowing state laws against union security measures to supersede the federal law.

In the public-sector union context, right-to-work laws mean that union members do not have to pay union dues to be members of the union. In states that have enacted right-to-work laws that apply to private employers, most of these laws prohibit labor unions and employers from entering into contracts that only employ unionized workers for the jobs in the contract. Essentially, these states allow workers to join a union if they wish, but employers cannot force or compel employees to join a union as a term or condition of employment.

In states like New Jersey that do not have right-to-work laws, workers covered by a union contract can refuse to join the union and pay the fees associated with workplace bargaining. States with right-to-work laws require union contracts to cover all workers, not just those who are members of the union. This can reduce the union’s bargaining strength, which can result in lower wages and benefits.

Employment rights and labor groups who oppose right-to-work laws say it is fair for people to pay the workplace bargaining fees because federal law requires unions to represent all workers, even those who do not join. They believe right-to-work laws allow workers to enjoy the benefits of being a union member, such as higher wages and job protections, without paying any of the costs of collective bargaining. Supporters of right-to-work laws argue that the laws guarantee workers’ rights to choose whether or not to join and/or support a union, rather than forcing them to join as a term of employment.

While your state may or may not have a right-to-work law, this is an area that is constantly changing and it is wise to consult with an experienced attorney for the most up-to-date information. For specific questions or concerns regarding employment laws in New Jersey, please contact our office at 973-509-8500 x213 or

The contents of this writing are intended for general information purposes only and should not be construed as legal advice or opinion in any specific facts or circumstances.

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