Right-to-work law

What right-to-work laws really mean

January 31, 2012: 12:19 PM ET

Indiana could become the first state to embrace a right-to-work law in more than a decade, alarming organized labor proponents who fear a shift in public support for workers' rights.

By Elizabeth G. Olson, contributor

FORTUNE -- As the economy continues to wobble, the American divide on labor rights is playing out in some unexpected locales. Indiana is in the spotlight now, as it prepares to adopt a law that unions say will weaken their ranks.

If passed, the "right-to-work" law would allow workers to skip paying union dues but still receive the benefits of union-negotiated contracts. Advocates say such employees have been forced into unions, but organized labor calls them "free riders."

Like the minimum wage, right-to-work battles have flared repeatedly for more than a half-century after workers toiling in onerous circumstances -- not unlike what some in Asian factories face today -- won the right to unite and bargain for wages and workplace conditions. But the nation never completely embraced a uniform view of worker rights.

In a peculiarly American way of adopting names that can be contrary to what they can mean, proponents called their effort "right to work." At first glance, this "seems to be a declaration that there is a right to have a job," notes Dan Graff, a professor with the Higgins Labor Studies Program at the University of Notre Dame, who has studied the impact of such a law in Indiana.

"This country has a different definition of this phrase than everyone else in the world," he says. "The phrase is deliberately meant to confuse. A Texas newspaper columnist started calling it that decades ago, and it was picked up to mean working without having to be a member of a union."

Almost half of all states already have such laws, with a concentration in in the Sun Belt, a region that has a less than friendly history with unions. It's been more than a decade since the last state adopted such a law (Oklahama, in 2001), but the unexpected success of curbing collective bargaining rights in Wisconsin has fueled voices to give corporations a free, or, at least freer, hand in the workplace. More

Current Issue
  • Give the gift of Fortune
  • Get the Fortune app
  • Subscribe
Powered by WordPress.com VIP.