Unlike other states like Michigan, Washington is not a right-to-work state. This creates controversy over whether legislating a right-to-work statute would be a positive or negative development for workers whom would fall under such a law.
Origins of the Right-to-Work Laws
The right-to-work concept goes back to at least 1902, when there were questions as to whether union power was a positive or a negative. At the time, the labor movement was growing as part of a larger progressive movement. The labor movement spurred union organizing that represented workers when negotiating with management. Then, the employer was seen as all-powerful entity that could easily take advantage of employees. This was cemented by Upton Sinclair’s book The Jungle, which described the horrid conditions of those working in the meat packing industry.
After much grassroots organizing, unions gained powerful footing in the American workplace. Seeing the possibility of an imbalance and chaos, Congress stepped in to legislate how unions and management could conduct themselves. The most notable of these legislations in the Taft-Hartley Act of 1947, which is also known as the Labor Management Relations Act.
Under Taft-Hartley, certain businesses that were called “union shops” were only open to workers who were part of a union. A union shop is a requirement wherein employment is contingent on the worker joining the union, usually within 30 days. A worker need not be part of a union to be hired, but must join a union to retain his or her employment. However, many felt that allowing in only workers who were union members was unfair and disadvantaged non-union members. There are some people who have strong job skills who for good reason may not be interested in joining a union. They may have a different philosophy than a union or may feel that union dues are too high and that they are better off representing themselves.
Right to Work Law Debate
Against this backdrop, numerous state legislatures passed right-to-work laws. First, note that the term “right-to-work” is not a legal term. It is similar to the term “right-to-life” that is used by those who oppose abortion.
Second, right-to-work laws are controversial. As mentioned, those who support such laws point to the unfairness of total union domination of a workplace. Others argue that a right-to-work law hurts labor as a whole because it weakens the bargaining power of unions, thereby undermining the whole purpose of a union.
Third, right-to-work laws create “free riders,” or workers who do not join a union but still get benefits like other members of the union.
Those advocating for right-to-work laws contend that no person should be compelled to join a union as it contravenes a person’s freedom of association.
At this point, it seems that the Washington legislature sides with those who are against right-to-work laws. Perhaps their reasoning is based on the above.
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