Q. What is at-will employment? What is a right to work state?
A. At-will employment means that a person can be fired for almost any reason or for no reason at all. They can also have the terms of their employment, such as salary and benefits, altered. Conversely, it also means that a person can leave a job for any reason. One caveat is that it is illegal to terminate or discriminate against a person for a reason prohibited by law, such as for race or gender.
At-will is the presumed or default employment relationship in the United States. However, this presumption can be altered by contract, which is seen with many higher-level employees. Also, a broader contract, called a collective bargaining agreement, can be negotiated by unions to cover a group of employees.
The relationship between employer and employee is governed by state and federal law.
The federal government passed the National Labor Relations Act (NLRA) in 1935, which governs the formation of labor unions and how they negotiate with employers. One of the key parts of the NLRA is the “closed shop” provision, which allows employers and employees to negotiate collective bargaining contracts that require every employee to pay dues to the union. These are generally known as union security agreements, or “union shops.” The reason for this is to avoid “free riding,” the ability of employees to take advantage of the negotiated benefits, job security and salaries without having to pay dues.
The NLRA was amended in 1947 by the Taft-Hartley Act, which gave states the ability to opt out of the “closed shop” requirement. As a result, states can pass laws that prohibit workplaces from requiring union membership or mandatory dues. Those laws are often labeled as right-to-work laws. While they do not give an individual a guarantee of work, these laws do prevent employees from being required to join a union. These workplaces are called “agency shops.” Florida and Texas are examples of right-to-work states.
Opposition or support for right-to-work laws are typically grounded in one’s assessment of the value of labor unions and collective bargaining. Proponents argue that right-to-work laws give greater flexibility to employers and freedom to employees to join or not join unions. Opponents contend that most employees are at a disadvantage negotiating individually with employers, and that right to work laws weaken unions so that they are less able to protect employees.
Interestingly, in large parts of the developed world, much of this debate is moot, as employment can only be terminated for cause. For example, in the European Union, the legal doctrine of “indefinite employment” requires that termination go through a lengthy process and requires legal justification.
Kevin Wagner is a noted constitutional scholar and political science professor at Florida Atlantic University. The answers provided do not necessarily represent the views of the university. If you have a question about how American government and politics work, email him at [email protected] or reach him on Twitter @kevinwagnerphd.