Sure, I’ll try to explain.
One of the things that unions and management typically negotiate over is mechanisms by which unions ensure that people in unionized workplaces actually become members of the union. These mechanisms have taken different forms:
- closed shops required workers to already be union members before they could be hired, and were common in fields like longshoring and construction. These were outlawed by the Taft-Hartley Act of 1947.
- union shops allowed management to hire non-union members, but required all workers to join the union within a certain period after they were hired. These were outlawed by the Supreme Court in the 80s.
- agency shops came after the banning of the first two forms, and limited themselves to saying that workers had to pay partial dues (known as “agency fees”) to repay the union for the cost of collective bargaining and grievance handling but not political activities or organizing campaigns.
“Right-to-work” laws are state level laws authorized by section 14b of the Taft-Hartley Act, which ban unions and management from agreeing to union shop or agency shops in that state.
The effect of these laws is that they inhibit union organizing for a couple reasons:
- they create a massive free-rider problem: workers can get all of the benefits of being in a union – wage increases, benefits, protections and grievance structures, etc. – without having to pay unions. This in turn means that unions in right-to-work shops are underfunded, which means they can’t finance further organizing drives.
- they change the default in favor of non-membership: in union shops and agency shops, the default tended to be joining a union – in the former, you could be fired or fined if you didn’t join, so most people did; in the latter, you were paying dues anyway, so you might as well join. Just like shifting a program from opt-out to opt-in reduces participation, “right-to-work” means that there’s no push or pull factors in favor of joining, and instead there’s an economic penalty for joining.