Election Results Mixed on Right-to-Work Measures

On election day, the ballots in three states—Alabama, South Dakota and Virginia—included right-to-work initiatives.

The results were mixed, but so were the proposals that came before voters. The measures in Alabama and Virginia sought to enshrine right-to-work language in the states' constitutions, whereas South Dakota voters were presented with a proposed amendment that would have negated an existing right-to-work law.

It's interesting to note that "right-to-work" is a somewhat anachronistic phrase. It originated in the days when it was still legal for unions and employers to have "closed shops," where workers could be required to maintain union membership as a condition of employment.

These days, all that can be required is the payment of dues and fees, adjusted to reflect representational costs. In other words, no one can be forced to join or support a union, but they can be covered by an agency fee or "fair share" agreement in which all the members of a union-represented bargaining unit must contribute to the costs of things like collective bargaining, contract adjustment and grievance administration. Objecting employees can't be charged for nonrepresentational activities, such as union political operations.

It's easy to see why unions would want the ability to gain unit-wide fee arrangements that require financial contributions from all the workers they represent. Union activists commonly raise the argument that it's unfair to have “free riders” in a bargaining unit who enjoy the benefits of representation without paying anything into union coffers.

Proponents of right-to-work measures tend to approach the issue from a different perspective, arguing that it's unfair to create a situation where someone's employment hinges on whether they contribute financially to a union. Even if they're allowed to remain nonmembers who pay reduced fees, workers who disagree with the idea of unionization may feel that any degree of support conflicts with their constitutionally protected freedom of association.

Other arguments also tend to surface when right-to-work measures come before the voting populace. For example, the proponents often assert that such initiatives will make a state more competitive in attracting new business and provide a shot in the arm to flagging economic growth, while the opponents might contend that right-to-work measures are merely a way to limit the power of labor unions.

In this year's balloting, 70 percent of Alabama voters approved Amendment 8, which added right-to-work provisions to the state's constitution. Although Alabama already had a right-to-work law, it now joins nine other states that have approved constitutional amendments on right to work.

In South Dakota, which also has a right-to-work law on the books, 80 percent of voters nixed Measure No. 23, an initiative to allow labor organizations to charge agency/service fees to workers who choose to forego union membership.

The ballot question in Virginia read as follows: "Should Article I of the Constitution of Virginia be amended to prohibit any agreement or combination between an employer and a labor union or labor organization whereby (i) nonmembers of the union or organization are denied the right to work for the employer, (ii) membership to the union or organization is made a condition of employment or continuation of employment by such employer, or (iii) the union or organization acquires an employment monopoly in any such enterprise?”

The initiative was voted down by a margin of 53 percent to 46 percent, but like Alabama and South Dakota, Virginia already had a right-to-work law on the books.

In fact, none of the results on Nov. 8 produced a net change in the number of right-to-work states; that total remains 26. However, some analysts predict that more right-to-work laws are on the way, and they also expect members of the U.S. Congress to introduce a federal right-to-work bill in the early days of 2017.

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