Organized labor, usually in the form of labor unions, is responsible for countless improvements in working conditions in New Jersey and throughout the country. The first half of the twentieth century saw the most improvements, as unions and their members fought—often literally—for reasonable hours, workplace safety, and better pay and benefits. Union membership has declined significantly in the past fifty years, however. One reason is a well-organized campaign that advocates for laws limiting the influence of unions in the workplace. These laws often go by the rather Orwellian name “right-to-work.” Voters in Missouri recently rejected a right-to-work law enacted by the state legislature and signed by the governor. Still, at least twenty-seven states have enacted right-to-work laws. New Jersey remains very favorable towards unions, with both laws and court decisions that affirm unions’ importance to the modern workplace.
Unions are able to negotiate on behalf of workers through collective bargaining agreements (CBAs) between a union and an employer. In order to understand how right-to-work laws affect unions’ ability to negotiate effectively, it is important to understand how unions have sought to ensure that they are able to speak for as many workers as possible. Some CBAs have, in the past, created “closed shops,” which means that employers could only hire union members. A “union shop” refers to an employer that, under the terms of a CBA, must require employees to join the union as a condition of employment.
One of the main objections to these types of arrangements involves the obligation of workers to join a union and pay dues, even if they do not agree with the union’s positions on various issues. The counter-argument to this is that all employees of a particular employer are likely to benefit from a union’s work, including those who are not members of the union. This is known as the “free rider problem.” Some union-shop CBAs, rather than requiring all employees to join the union, require workers who do not want to join to pay an “agency fee.”
The National Labor Relations Act (NLRA) of 1935 is the main federal statute dealing with labor organizing and interactions between employers and labor unions. Amendments to the NLRA in the Taft-Hartley Act of 1947 effectively banned closed shops by stating that employees have a right to “refrain” from any activity protected by the statute, and by prohibiting unions from coercing employees who choose to refrain. 29 U.S.C. §§ 157, 158(b). While the NLRA, after Taft-Hartley, still allowed union shops and agency fees, it also allowed states to enact their own laws.
State right-to-work laws, made possible by Taft-Hartley, prohibit union-shop clauses in CBAs, including requirements to pay agency fees. This significantly diminishes the influence of unions by allowing “free riders” to avoid contributing financially to union activities that benefit them.
The origin of the term “right-to-work” is unclear. Supporters of right-to-work laws do not appear to make much effort to explore the history of the term. Opponents of such laws, on the other hand, have delved into this history rather extensively. At best, “right-to-work” laws do not match up with the plain meaning of the words in that term. At worst, the term has a highly ignominious history.
If you are dealing with a dispute with an employer in New Jersey or New York, the employment attorneys at the Resnick Law Group are here to help you. Please contact us today at 973-781-1204, at 646-867-7997, or online to schedule a confidential consultation with a member of our experienced and knowledgeable team.
More Blog Posts:
State “Right to Work” Law Ruled Unconstitutional, The New Jersey Employment Law Firm Blog, June 28, 2016
NLRB Finds Costco’s Social Media Policy Violates Rights of Union Workers, The New Jersey Employment Law Firm Blog, November 9, 2012
New Jersey Overtime Pay: Know Your Workplace Rights, The New Jersey Employment Law Firm Blog, October 4, 2012