So what exactly is right to work legislation in the US? I never quite got it tbh




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. 

A union’s power should be generated from the unity of its members sharing a goal, and not legislative mandate. I live in New Jersey, where we have one of the most powerful teacher’s unions in the country, and absolutely every teacher I have ever spoken to about the NJTU would quit it in a heartbeat if they were legally allowed to. No union should be representing its members that badly.

I would not at all be surprised if, if the option was there between “joining the NJ Teacher’s Union”, “joining the Local School District Teacher’s Union”, or just “not being a teacher”, my local school district would have 0% membership in the NJ Teacher’s Union.

But that would never happen, because if they tried to do that (and I know exactly the teacher who’d be most likely to head the LSDTU in this case) the NJ Teacher’s Union would fight them tooth and nail, and they’d win, because they have far more money to throw at the people who could change the law so the local school district could have its own union. No union should be anti-union, either.

The very concept of unionizing was created to get better working conditions. If the working conditions are satisfactory for a worker, then they don’t need a union in the first place. If they are, or become, unsatisfactory, that’s when a union should get involved.

There is no such organization as the “New Jersey Teacher’s Union.” Perhaps you mean the NJEA, the New Jersey Education Association?

Now, I know a lot more about the teachers union here in New York than I do in New Jersey. But I still find this anecdote… dubious.

First of all, as Steven notes above, you CAN quit the NJEA any time you want to. That’s been true for decades. In fact, ever since last June, you can quit the NJEA and still force them to represent you at the bargaining table without paying them a dime. So all them teachers you’ve supposedly talked to who want to bail out? There’s nothing stopping them!

But even if none of that were true, I’d still find your assertions dubious.

Know why? Because unions don’t have a corporate power structure. They have a democratic power structure. This has in the past not been honored; union elections have absolutely been rigged, and in multiple cases candidates for union leadership who were threats to existing leadership got straight-up murdered.

But now we’re going back literally half a century. Modern union elections are free and fair; this is no ballot-box stuffing.

The NJEA has elections every year, and they elect their senior officers on two-year terms. If the policies of the NJEA were really so disgusting to their membership, there is nothing at all stopping people from voting the union leadership out and taking their place.

Finally, most districts in New Jersey do, in fact, have their own local teachers union. That local is part of the umbrella of the NJEA, and it usually isn’t called a local but it has a name like “Trenton Education Association” but it is still a local, in the same way “United Steelworkers Local 161″ (or whatever) would still be part of the AFL-CIO. So teachers already have locals. The NJEA actually encourages their creation.

In conclusion, you have many basic facts wrong.

And to chime in: the closed shop, union shop, and agency shop weren’t created by legislative mandate, but rather emerged from collective bargaining agreements agreed to between management and the union. The legislative mandate was the Taft-Hartley Act banning workplaces from making those agreements.


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