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Op-Ed: Ensure long-lasting protection for workers with a Right-To-Work constitutional amendment

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Imagine going to work and being forced to pay a fee from every paycheck for a service you don’t want. Frustration would be a mild reaction, outrage a more understandable one. Month after month, paycheck after paycheck, a portion of your wages would go to support a private organization you disagree with. This is the position many union members find themselves in across the country.

The First Amendment of the United States protects the rights of free speech and the courts have repeatedly affirmed this right naturally extends to freedom of association. Unfortunately, for workers in 24 states, because these states lack a right-to-work law, unions have found a workaround from the freedom of association.

Forced union membership is as undemocratic as it sounds. No American can be legally forced to join a formal union, but unions have historically found a way to protect their pocketbooks from uninterested members. In non-right-to-work states, unions can require companies to charge ‘non-member fees’ as part of the employment conditions. These non-member fees are often the equivalent (or so close) to the member fee, that there is no point in opting out of membership.

A right-to-work (RTW) law prevents these compulsory private membership practices. Instead of mandating that all workers in certain fields and careers must be members and pay the union dues, right-to-work states recognize that not all workers may agree with the practices of the unions. In right-to-work states, unions must earn the membership dues of their members. Guarding this protection within state constitutions is an important policy protection.

Idaho and Wyoming are right-to-work states that adopted their statutory protections decades ago. Wyoming became a right-to-work state in 1963 and Idaho in 1985. Unfortunately, for workers in Montana and Washington, they remain unprotected and workers can be subject to union leadership they disagree with.

Right-to-work laws are not a tool used to break up unions, but to protect workers from unions that are taking membership dues from members who disagree with union political practices and efforts. The law also protects non-members from being fired simply because they do not join a union. Instead of fighting against right-to-work laws, unions should strengthen their efforts to recruit new members by listening and following the direction of dues-paying members.

A recent Harvard Study found that people living in RTW areas have higher employment, higher labor force participation, lower disability receipts, and higher population growth because of the attractive economy. All these factors are associated with lower childhood poverty rates in RTW locations.

There are 26 states now protecting the fundamental rights of speech and association through right-to-work laws. Of these 26 states, 10 have gone beyond statutory laws, protecting worker freedom directly in their state constitutions. Tennessee is the most recent state to vote for a constitutional amendment (2022), joining 9 other states with constitutional safeguards.

In November 2022, Amendment 1 won in all 95 counties in Tennessee and showed that workers want to be able to make their own choices concerning union membership. Nearly 70 percent of Tennessee voters agreed with protecting the right to work in the state constitution. Amending the state constitution to include worker freedom, protects the existing right-to-work law from future political changes that would disadvantage workers to favor union leaders.

A strong right-to-work policy would add language to a state constitution making it unlawful for any person to be denied employment because they want to resign or refuse to join or affiliate with any labor union or employee organization. A benefit of right-to-work constitutional amendments is the opportunity for voters to cast their opinions. In Tennessee, voters agreed with the measure by a 2-1 margin showing how important freedom of association is to a majority of Americans.

Lawmakers in our region should do the same and join the 10 other states with strong constitutional right-to-work protections for workers and the economy.