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“”It is a good time for organized labour to gather an army.
Right-to-work laws (called also "right-to-work-for-less laws") are not, as the name might suggest, laws that guarantee that citizens have a right to be gainfully employed (that would be another system altogether). Rather, they are laws that forbid unions from doing things like requiring represented workers to pay any kind of dues. This means that workers are legally free to hold employment without paying the union that represents them a red cent. It is highly debatable whether this freedom is of any practical use to workers.
"Right-to-work" laws are derived from legislation forbidding unions from forcing strikes on workers, as well as from legal principles such as "liberty of contract," which as applied here sought to prevent passage of laws regulating workplace conditions.
The term itself was coined by one Vance Muse, a Republican operative who headed an early "right-to-work" group, the "Christian American Association", to replace the term "American Plan" after it became associated with the anti-union violence of the First Red Scare. Muse used racist rhetoric when he campaigned for these laws, such as when he said:
Other stuff Vance Muse did: fought against women's suffrage, a child labor amendment, the 8-hour work day and Felix Frankfurter (a Jew) as a Supreme Court justice, while launching the very first steps towards the Southern Strategy. His "Christian American Association" was also anti-semitic as well as anti-Catholic.
Strictly speaking, right-to-work laws exist only in the United States. The Taft-Hartley Act of 1949, which banned "closed shops" where workers must be members of the union that represents them, also gave states the option to ban "agency shops," where workers do not have to be members but must pay a "fair share" fee to the union to cover the cost of representing them.
Right-to-work laws exist mostly in red states. The exact number of states with right-to-work laws vary depending on who's counting. According to the bipartisan National Conference of State Legislatures, 27 states and the U.S. territory of Guam have adopted right-to-work laws. The first to adopt such laws was Florida in 1943.
In fact, of the former 17 Jim Crow states, 12 are today right-to-work states, while 11 of them have the lowest American unionization rates and 5 of these also ban collective bargaining with public employees.
While the term "right-to-work" is not really used in Europe, at least not in the American sense, the European Court of Human Rights has ruled that it is a violation of human rights to force employees to join a union, so strictly speaking one might say that all European nations are "right-to-work" states.
Arguments in favor
As many countries, including the United States, have legislated bans on so called "yellow-dog contracts" (contracts that workers must sign, as a condition of employment, prohibiting the worker from joining a union), right-to-work laws are considered by some proponents to create a "balance" by banning agency shops. In other words, if the law gives workers the right to force their employer to finance a union through their paycheck, it seems only fair that it should also give them the right not to do this.
This, however, is an instance of the balance fallacy, as it does not take into account that it is much easier for an employer to force a yellow-dog contract on a worker than it is for the worker to force union recognition on an employer.
Though they do not prohibit any worker from joining an existing union or any workforce from unionizing by secret-ballot election in accordance with state and federal labor laws, a common criticism of these laws is that their ultimate purpose is to strip unions of their bargaining power by removing their ability to operate as a collective representation of their entire workforce.
There is also the issue of the unions' political power. The openly stated motivation for many right-to-work laws is to stop workers being forced to subsidize unions' political contributions, whether through union dues or "fair share" payments. If unions disproportionately support a particular party (e.g., the U.S.'s Democratic Party), that creates an incentive for other parties to bring in right-to-work laws by way of socking their opponents in the pocketbook.
The main organizations supporting right-to-work are the National Right to Work Committee, and the National Right to Work Legal Defense Foundation. The former is a conservative lobbying group, while the latter defends right-to-work laws in court; both are funded through donations.
Not to be confused with...
The United Nations (UN) does actually recognize something called the "right to work." The U.N.'s definition is much less Orwellian and actually has to do with the right to have a job, as part of Article 23 the Universal Declaration of Human Rights:
“”Everyone has the right to work, to free choice of employment, to just and favourable conditions of work and to protection against unemployment.
Note also that part of the same article of said Declaration also says, "Everyone has the right to form and to join trade unions for the protection of his interests", which makes it in effect a pro-union document, the opposite effect of "right-to-work" laws (though not in direct contradiction thereto).
This right is also recognised in the UN's International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights, in its article 6 paragraph 1:
“”The States Parties to the present Covenant recognize the right to work, which includes the right of everyone to the opportunity to gain his living by work which he freely chooses or accepts, and will take appropriate steps to safeguard this right.
This document also protects the right to freely form and join trade unions in its article 8.
This "right to work" is guaranteed by full employment programs.
- Right-to-work legislation isn’t worth it, Maclean's
- Not that the old Eastern Bloc was anything like the "workers' paradise" presented in its propaganda either. Even after the end of Uncle Joe's forced industrialization one wag described the system as one in which "the state pretends to pay us and we pretend to work".
- Why Are Anti-Union Laws Called “Right To Work”?, Slate
- As "Right To Work" becomes law in Wisconsin, a reminder of its inventor's racist past, Pando
- You Hate "Right To Work" Laws More Than You Know. Here's Why, NSFWCORP
- Right-to-Work Resources, NCSL Accessed January 30, 2020.
- The Ugly Racial History of “Right to Work”, Dissent Magazine
- 'Right to Work' for Less, AFL-CIO
- ECHR rules against Danish closed-shop agreements, Eurofound
- Shocked, shocked, I tell ya!
- Text of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, UNHCR
- International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights on Wikisource
- Revolutions of 1848: A Social History by Priscilla Robertson, 1952, Princeton University Press