The History of Right-to-Work Legislation & Its Impact on Unions

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The next battle lines over labor in Wisconsin have apparently been drawn. 

Senate Majority Leader Scott Fitzgerald expects colleagues to approve right-to-work legislation next week.

If approved, Wisconsin would be following other Midwest states in adopting right-to-work laws – examples that labor law expert Paul Secunda has watched carefully. Secunda is a Professor of Law and Director of the Labor and Employment Law Program at Marquette University Law School, and he spoke with Lake Effect's Mitch Teich about potential right-to-work changes.

The History of Right-to-Work Legislation

Right-to-work legislation goes back to the 1940s. "There had been a practice among American labor unions to require individuals to already be in the union in order to be hired by certain companies. This was called a closed shop," Secunda says.

"In 1947, when labor law reform passed the Congress, closed shops were outlawed and instead we had different types of, what we call, union security provisions," he says. "​So for instance, you could have a union shop which meant you had to join the union 30 days after becoming employed...or we had things called agency fee provisions." Under agency fee provisions, workers had to pay collective bargaining and other types of grievance processing dues, but they did not have to pay for political or ideological dues.

"In the 1950s, there was a movement to allow states...to permit certain members of the union not have to pay any dues," Secunda says. "And, these were referred to colloquially as right-to-work statutes."

Right-to-work basically means that you can get services from the union but you don't have to pay for them, he says.

"Since the 1950s, about 24 states have passed right-to-work legislation, which permits employees at unionized firms not to have to pay any dues," Secunda says.

Right-to-Work's Impact

​According to Secunda, unions are not able to effectively organization or engage in collection bargaining and other types of concerted activities because of the lack of funding resulting from right-to-work legislation.

The structure of the national labor relations act causes a problem for people who do not want to pay dues or be a part of a union.

"Since it was enacted in 1935, it requires that unions that are elected by a majority of workers in a bargaining unit have to be the exclusive representative," Secunda says. "So let's say a union is elected by 51 of 100 workers, even though it has only been elected by 51, it actually has the duty...to represent all 100 workers."

"Because of exclusive representation, whether they want to or not, the union has to provide services to these employees - collective bargaining, grievance processing. And, so the thought is it doesn't make much sense to provide services to these employees if they are not going to pay for them," he says.

When it comes to right-to-work's impact politically, unions are the primary source of Democratic financial aid during elections. "So clearly weakening the unions weakens the Democratic Party and this is obviously favorable for the Republicans," he adds.

The impact on labor is the issue of whether these laws cause workers to get lower wages and less benefits. "There's a fear that these laws will lead to the further diminishment of the middle class in this country," Secunda says.

There are statistics comparing right-to-work states to non-right-to-work states. "Employees in right-to-work states get lesser wages, less benefits. There might be more employment, but it's underemployment," he says. "People are being employed in jobs that don't take advantage of their skill sets... their education. That's really a larger problem that we have today with the American economy."

Advocates say that right-to-work gives workers the freedom to choose whether or not to join a union, and more jobs will be available because employers don't have to pay higher union wages.

Secunda says the problem with choosing to be in a union or not is that employees are still covered by the union's exclusive representation, under the national labor relations act.

Correction: In the audio from this segment, Paul Secunda misspoke when he referred to the comparison between right-to-work and non-right-to-work states. Secunda's quote incorrectly referred to "lesser wages and lesser benefits" in non-right-to-work states. We regret the confusion.