To understand the nature and effect of a right-to-work amendment, labor relations can be viewed from three perspectives. First is a free-market approach, which maximizes government neutrality. As Robert Hunter, a former member of both the National Labor Relations Board and the Michigan Civil Service Commission, puts it:

"The free-market (or government-neutral) approach requires that the government neither encourage nor discourage the formation of labor unions. Workers who choose to form a union are free to do so. Government does not prohibit union membership or union activity, provided existing laws against fraud, violence, and property damage are not violated. Individual workers may join or not join a union, and union leaders must earn each worker’s voluntary support by providing desired benefits. Under this approach, employers may choose to deal or not deal with the labor union and workers are free to strike. ..."[3] (Emphasis in original.)

A competing vision is "compulsory unionism," which uses governmental power to ensure that unions are given a monopoly status as the bargaining representative for a group of workers whenever a majority of those workers have voted to allow the union to perform this task.* These workers, who are typically referred to as a "collective bargaining unit," are a set of employees who have a common employer and are held to have similar labor interests in relation to that employer. As Hunter describes compulsory unionism:

"[In this approach, the] government plays an active role in encouraging labor unions. The government forces employers to recognize labor unions and negotiate with them in a process called ‘mandatory collective bargaining.’ Unions are recognized by law as ‘exclusive bargaining representatives’ who may prohibit individual workers in their bargaining units from negotiating individual working arrangements with their employer, even if they would be better off doing so and their employer is willing. ...

"Likewise, the privilege of exclusive representation prevents workers from being represented by a union other than the one approved by a majority of their co-workers. Everyone in the bargaining unit is in turn required to work under the terms of any contract the union approves."[4]

A labor contract that allows a union to compel fees from all workers within the union’s collective bargaining unit (even if some of those workers have not actually joined the union) is generally called an "agency-shop agreement."[5] An agreement whereby an employee must join a union and pay dues or fees within a certain time after being hired is called a "union-shop agreement."

In cases of compulsory unionism, labor contracts typically include "union secu-rity clauses," which require employers to fire workers who fail to support the union either by becoming a union member or by paying union dues or fees.

A third, intermediate approach to labor policy involves right-to-work laws, which are a means of lessening the impact of compulsory unionism. Generally, right-to-work laws prevent an employee from being hired or fired for being a union member or a nonmember, and they prohibit unions from charging fees to nonmembers in a collective bargaining unit. In effect, right-to-work laws nullify union security clauses, meaning that a worker no longer has to join a union or pay union bargaining fees as a condition of employment.

Note that right-to-work laws do not end a union’s status as the government-mandated exclusive bargaining agent for a collective bargaining unit. Individual workers in the collective bargaining unit cannot negotiate independently with their employer or bargain through a second union. Right-to-work laws therefore do not produce a free-market labor environment. Nevertheless, given the current state of federal labor law, right-to-work laws provide workers with a degree of freedom despite the monopoly bargaining power the unions retain.

* Unions are generally empowered to represent a bargaining unit by a majority vote of the unit’s workers. Once created, however, the union often enjoys a presumption of continued majority support. Thus, in some longstanding bargaining units, many employees may not have had an opportunity to explicitly accept or reject union representation.