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The Truth About So-Called "Right to Work" Laws


We are pleased to feature a guest blog post by Tom Suhrbur. Tom grew up in a union family in Cicero, Illinois. He received a BA and MA in U.S. history at the UIC and a Certificate of Advanced Studies in labor history from NIU. Tom is co-author of a book "Union Brotherhood, Union Town: The History of the Chicago Carpenters' Union, 1863-1987." He also taught social studies for 17 years.  His last teaching job was at Geneva HS (Illinois). He is a recently retired union organizer for the Illinois Education Association and is currently the Vice-President of the Illinois Labor History Society.

The truth about so-called “Right To Work” laws

By Tom Suhrbur, Illinois Education Association retired

Gov. Bruce Rauner is pushing for so-called “right to work” legislation. Such laws bar unions and employers from negotiating agreements that require workers who benefit from union representation to either pay union dues or a “fair share” fee to cover the cost of that representation. But what does that mean?

Union Busting

While the rationale for RTW is to protect the “freedom” of workers, these laws are really intended to undermine unions. According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS), the 15 states with the lowest rate of union membership have RTW laws, which embolden employers to fight vigorously against union organizing campaigns. They weaken existing unions by encouraging non-membership and depriving unions of much needed revenue.

A Lower Standard of Living For Workers

Of course, without a union, the employer has the exclusive power to set wages, benefits and working conditions and to fire employees “at will.” Without collective bargaining representation or collective action, individual workers are powerless.

As a result, RTW laws lower wages and benefits. The Economic Policy Institute has pointed out that workers earn on average $5,000 less annually in RTW states than in free-bargaining states like Illinois. They also are less likely to have health insurance coverage and pension benefits.  In 2014, 8 of the 10 states with the highest poverty rates (West Virginia and New Mexico being the exception) are RTW. In contrast, 7 of the 10 states with the lowest poverty rates are free-bargaining states.

What About Job Creation? 

Conservatives argue that RTW laws significantly attract investment, resulting in job creation. In 2014, 7 of 10 of states that had the lowest unemployment were RTW but 6 of them are sparsely populated, rural western states (North Dakota, South Dakota, Utah, Idaho, Wyoming and Nebraska). Nevertheless, 7 of the 10 states with the highest unemployment were also RTW states. These laws do not clearly lower unemployment. In fact, the three states with the highest unemployment have RTW laws. Mississippi, a RTW state, has the highest poverty rate and second highest unemployment in the nation. Where are the jobs?

RTW Laws Violate Democratic Principles

It makes sense that workers who benefit from union representation should be required to pay their fair share for those benefits. But while this argument carries some weight with the public, it does not go far enough. 

What should be made clear is that a union has a duty of fair representation for all employees covered by the collective bargaining agreement–a statutory obligation. Since unions have a duty of fair representation, the National Labor Relations Act (NLRA) and many state bargaining laws allow agreements that prevent “free loaders.”

But under so-called Right To Work laws, non-members not only receive all the benefits of the contract but also have the right to legal services without paying anything. If they do not feel that they are receiving proper representation, they can take legal action against the union. Talk about a free ride!

In effect, RTW laws circumvent democratic decision-making by allowing individuals to enjoy the fruits of representation without contributing to the collective efforts of their co-workers.

Democratic decision-making is a basic principle upon which American society rests. Are pacifists allowed to opt out paying taxes that support the military? Can a childless couple refuse to pay taxes to educate our children? If citizens do not like government policies, what can they do? They can raise their voices, organize politically and vote to change policies but they cannot opt out. RTW violates this basic democratic principle.

 Despite conservative claims, RTW legislation is not about fairness. Instead, it is about money and political power. Republicans and their corporate allies want to undermine labor unions and weaken political opponents.


Please join Citizen Action/Illinois and our campaign to stop right to work laws. Sign our petition here: