Advocates of right-to-work laws argue that right-to-work laws will benefit workers. Will they? What rights do these laws give employees -- and their bosses? AOL Jobs legal affairs blogger Donna Ballman, who is an employment attorney, answers a reader's question on this subject and in the process debunks what she says are common myths around these laws.
Q: I live in a right-to-work state. It actually benefits the employer. I was told by a manager that because it is a right-to-work state they have the right to fire at will. I also worked at Walmart here. I was told by management that it would be automatic firing if I discussed organizing a union.
A: You are absolutely right. While right-to-work supporters have done a great job of convincing employees that these laws will benefit them, the laws benefit employers way more than employees. The statistics are damning.
The AFL-CIO points out that right-to-work states tend to have lower average wages, spend less on education, have higher worker fatality rates and have lower standards of living. President Obama says this about right-to-work supporters, "What they are really talking about is giving you the right to work for less money."
Right-to-work laws recently passed in Michigan and Wisconsin. Supporters claim that these laws help create more jobs. But that's not the whole story. A recent study debunks this and demonstrates that the "more jobs" claim is a myth.
If you have any doubt about which side these laws benefit, look at who supports them. We're talking big business interests, chambers of commerce, and wealthy Republican donors. Do you really think these folks want to help the middle class worker? Nonsense. They want to help their own wallets and their friends in the 1 percent.
Myths About Right-To-Work Laws
Americans are confused about right-to-work laws and what they actually mean. Here are common myths:
1. Right-to-work-laws say workers can be fired for any reason.
A common misperception is that, like my reader's question says, they mean an employer can fire employees for any reason or no reason at all. Right-to-work laws have absolutely nothing to do with this. What you're talking about here is at-will employment.
Every state but Montana is already an at-will employment state. At-will means your employer can fire you for any reason or no reason at all. Whether your employer doesn't like your shirt, wakes up in a bad mood, or just feels like it, they can fire you at-will unless you have a contract or union agreement saying otherwise.
A union can bargain to change this. Many union agreements have requirements that employers only terminate for just cause.
2. Right-to-work laws will stop employers from keeping you from working for competitors.
This is a common misconception. I hear this all the time regarding noncompete agreements, which are used to stop employees from leaving and working for a competitor for a year or more. "But this is a right-to-work state!" they cry. "They can't stop me from working." Yes. They can. Each state has different laws on noncompete agreements, but the general rule I offer is: Don't sign unless you can live with it. Never assume that you can get out of an agreement later. Always assume the employer will at least try to enforce it.
So what do right to work laws really mean?
In many states, if you work for a unionized employer, you must pay union dues. The reason for this is that you are bound by the union agreement, the union represents you in grievances, and they bargain for your wages and benefits.
Right-to-work is a movement that is trying to gut unions by cutting off their major source of funding. What these laws do is say you don't have to pay union dues if you work for a unionized employer, and you can't be turned down for employment just because you don't belong to the union.
While that may sound like a cost saving, I think failing to join your union is a mistake. If you aren't involved, how can you complain about what the union is doing? It's like complaining about Congress but not voting. If the union is going to represent you, it makes sense for you to have your voice heard. If you don't like what they're doing, get more involved, not less. Become a representative. Run for office. All that failing to join means is that your opinion doesn't matter.
The bottom line:
Right-to-work laws don't give employers the right to fire you at will. They already have that right. What these laws mean is that you'll have less ability to unionize and fight for better working conditions, wages and an agreement that your employer will only fire you for just cause.
After the recent round of strikes nationwide, Walmart executives are reportedly telling workers their benefits and bonuses "might go away" if they unionize.
But is that legal?
The National Labor Relations Act says in Section 7: "Employees shall have the right to self-organization, to form, join, or assist labor organizations, to bargain collectively through representatives of their own choosing, and to engage in other concerted activities for the purpose of collective bargaining or other mutual aid or protection. ..." Section 8 of the NLRA makes it illegal for an employer "to interfere with, restrain, or coerce employees in the exercise of the rights guaranteed in section 7." the National Labor Relations Board, the agency that enforces the NLRA, specifically says that an employer breaks this law if it engages in "Threatening employees with loss of jobs or benefits if they join or vote for a union or engage in protected concerted activity."
However, saying benefits "might go away" may be in the category of a "prediction" rather than a threat. A direct threat, like the one you mention in this question, is clearly illegal.
If your employer threatens you with termination if you discuss forming or joining a union, you should report them to the NLRB by filing a Charge Against Employer within 6 months of the threat or other coercion.
If you need legal advice, it's best to talk to an employment lawyer in your state, but if you have general legal issues you want me to discuss publicly here, whether about discrimination, working conditions, employment contracts, medical leave, or other employment law issues, you can ask me at AOL Jobs. Please include your name and phone number. While I can't answer everything you send, anything you email to me could be featured in one of my columns, or an upcoming AOL Jobs Lunchtime Live video chat, which airs Fridays 12:30 pm EST, on AOL Jobs' Google+ page.
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