It is important to understand the precise legal effect of right-to-work laws. Simply put, right-to-work prevents unions from forcing an employer to fire an employee who refuses to pay the union. Senate Bill 116 of 2012, part of the bill package that made Michigan a right-to-work state, reads as follows:
- An individual shall not be required as a condition of obtaining or continuing employment to do any of the following:
- Refrain or resign from membership in, voluntary association with, or voluntary financial support of a labor organization.
- Become or remain a member of a labor organization.
- Pay any dues, fees, assessments, or other charges or expenses of any kind or amount or provide anything of value to a labor organization.
- Pay to any charitable organization or third party an amount that is in lieu of, equivalent to, or any portion of dues, fees, assessments, or other charges or expenses required of members of or employees represented by a labor organization.
Prior to right-to-work, Michigan’s labor law authorized what is known as “union security agreements.” These agreements required all workers to pay the union that represents a group of similarly situated employees, known as a collective bargaining unit.[*] Unionized employees had only one method of limiting their support for a union with which they disagreed: a 1988 U.S. Supreme Court decision that gave employees the ability to opt out of supporting specific political spending by their union. Employees exercising these “Beck rights” would, however, still have to pay the portion of dues meant to support all union activities determined to be nonpolitical. That portion of dues is known as an “agency fee.” Unions could, and did, force employers to fire employees who refused to either become a dues-paying member of the union or pay these agency fees.[†] Right-to-work put an end to this practice by preventing employees from being fired for refusing to join or financially support a union.
[*] Most employees never get a chance to decide which union will represent them. Unions do not need to get reelected to maintain their status in a workplace; once a union is voted in by a group of workers, it tends to remain the only union that can represent employees, including all future employees who never voted for the union. A competing union could challenge the existing one in a unionization election, but these challenges are rare. One study found that only 6% of unionized employees voted for unionization during their careers and remained at the company at which they voted. James Sherk, “Unelected Representatives: 94 percent of Union Members Never Voted for a Union” (The Heritage Foundation, August 30, 2016), https://perma.cc/45XY-268J.
[†] Opting to only pay agency fees did not provide substantial financial relief to workers, as these fees typically amounted to 70-90% of the full dues amount. David Eggert, “Michigan right-to-work Q&A: Dissecting the ins and outs of contentious issue” (MLive.com, Dec. 11, 2012), https://perma.cc/8GFE-6XDQ; Tom Gantert, “MEA Agency Fees Far Exceed Cost of Contract Negotiations” (Michigan Capitol Confidential, Mackinac Center for Public Policy, Nov. 11, 2013), https://perma.cc/W96H-UGD4.