Right-to-work laws are state laws that give employees the option to decide whether or not to join a union in their workplace. Right-to-work laws prohibit an employer from making union membership or the payment of union dues a condition of employment. So, an employee cannot be made to pay union dues in order to obtain employment. An employee cannot be fired, because they refuse to join a union or pay union dues in a right-to-work state.
Railroad and airline employees, as well as some federal employees, are not covered by these laws. Right-to-work laws in 15 states apply to all public employees in the state. In 4 other states, there are separate laws that apply to public employees, i.e. employees who work for local or state government entities.
Some states do not allow certain categories of public employees, such as police and firefighters, to form unions. The states of North Carolina, South Carolina, and Virginia have state laws that prohibit all collective bargaining by public employees.
How Many Right to Work States are There?
There are 27 states that have right-to-work laws. Again, these laws prohibit what are called “union security agreements”, which make employment in a unionized workplace dependent on the employee joining the union. The 27 states are:
- North Carolina;
- North Dakota;
- South Carolina;
- South Dakota;
- West Virginia;
Do I Have to Join a Union?
The answer to this question depends on the state in which a person works and whether there is a union in their workplace. If a person is an employee of a state or local government, a public school teacher or a college professor, they would not have to join a union in their workplace in the 3 states noted above, which forbid all unions by public employees.
In the other right-to-work states, they may be able to join a union, but cannot be required to do so. In states with no right-to-work laws, they may be required to pay union dues if their place of employment is unionized.
If a person is a private sector employee, they would not have to join a union in their workplace, if they live in a right-to-work state. On the other hand, if a person lives in one of the 23 states that do not have a right-to-work law, and there is a union in their workplace, then the person might have to join a union and pay union dues if the employees in their place of work are covered by a union collective bargaining agreement.
If a person works for a railroad or airline, they do not have to join a union, but they may have to pay union membership dues.
Keep in mind that even if a worker in a right-to-work state does not belong to the union in their workplace, under U.S. labor law, the union is obligated to represent all employees, even those who do not pay union dues and are not union members. So, employees who are not union members are paid according to the union-employer wage scale, and the union must represent the worker in grievance procedures.
If I Live in a Right-to-Work State, Can I Be Fired without Cause?
A right-to-work law only protects a worker from being fired for not joining a union in their workplace or for not paying union dues. Whether a person can be fired for other reasons, or for no reason, depends on a variety of other factors. For example, if a person is a member of a union, then the grounds for termination and the procedures that must be followed would be governed by the applicable union collective bargaining agreement. Generally, a union contract has provisions that state the grounds for which a union member’s employment can be terminated. In addition, the union contract prescribes procedures that must be followed before a member can be dismissed.
As noted above, under federal labor law, an employee who is not a union member and does not pay membership dues is still covered by a union collective bargaining agreement, so they can only be fired for reasons stated in the agreement.
If a person is not a union member, then whether they can be fired without cause would depend on whether they have a contract with their employer and whether that contract provides that termination of employment must be for cause. In addition, the contract would have to specify the grounds for termination of employment. If an employee does not have a contract that says that termination can only be for cause, then they can be fired without cause at any time. Their employment is what is called “at-will employment.”
Contracts can be oral or written, express or implied. So, a person might have a written employment contract that explicitly states that termination of employment can only be for cause, and what conduct on the part of the employer gives the employer cause. If a person were to have such an employment contract, they could then only be fired for cause per the terms of their employment contract.
A contract can be implied, however, from the circumstances of a person’s employment. So, for example, if a person has a policies and procedures manual from their employer which addresses the circumstances in which employment can be terminated, that could be evidence of an implied contract. If the employer observes its policies and procedures manual and only fires employees for the causes specified in the manual, that would be additional evidence of an implied contract of employment.
If an employer has an implied contract, but fires an employee for a reason that is not specified in the implied contract, then the employee might have a cause of action for breach of their contract of employment. This does not depend on any right-to-work law in the state, but on the law of contracts and employment contracts.
If a person does not have an employment contract, express or implied, oral or written, with provisions regarding the grounds for termination of their employment, then they can be fired at any time without cause. Of course, there are limitations on an employer’s right to dismiss an employee for prohibited reasons, such as discrimination on the basis or race, gender, age or other characteristics, or for whistleblowing activity.
Right-to-work laws only protect an employee from being fired for the reason that they have not joined a union that has a collective bargaining agreement with the employer. It does not protect an employee from being fired at any time and without cause, if they are not a union member and do not have a contract of some kind that prohibits dismissal without cause. Of course, keep in mind that even if a person is not a dues-paying union member, if there is a union collective bargaining agreement in their workplace, they are protected by it.
This is one of the reasons that workers join unions and negotiate collective bargaining agreements that provide that workers can only be fired for cause, what cause for firing is and what kind of process the employer must follow before they are allowed to fire a worker. The reason is that union membership and a collective bargaining agreement can protect an employee from being fired without cause and without notice.
Do I Need a Lawyer?
If you live in a right-to-work state and have been fired for refusing to join a union, your rights may have been violated. You may be able to seek reinstatement to your job or damages. You should speak with a labor lawyer in your state to see what your options are and to guarantee that the right actions are taken to secure your rights.
If you are an employer and are unsure of how right-to-work laws, collective bargaining agreements and other employment contracts may affect your operations, you would benefit from consulting with an employment lawyer also. Your lawyer can review your situation and advise you as to what you can and cannot do in connection with terminating employment in your operation.