Hearing Panelists Warn Right-to-Work Laws in Jeopardy

A recent move by the National Labor Relations Board threatens the right-to-work laws in 25 states, witnesses testified during a hearing conducted by the House Committee on Education and the Workforce. At the June 3 hearing, lawmakers and panelists debated the merits of right-to-work laws, and whether unions should be permitted to force nonmembers to pay grievance fees.

The impetus for the hearing was the Board's April 16 invitation for public comment on whether it should adopt a rule allowing unions to require nonunion members to pay fees for grievance processing. According to Committee Chairman John Kline (R-MN), this shift in long-standing labor policy would undermine employee protections provided under state right-to-work laws. He said the NLRB "has a clear agenda of growing private-sector union membership at any cost."

At the outset of the hearing, Kline explained that an employee's grievance process is outlined in the collective bargaining agreement, and nonunion members are bound to these requirements whether or not they voted for the union in the first place. Nonunion members have no other recourse to resolve their grievances.

Currently, 25 states—most recently Wisconsin, Indiana, and Michigan—have enacted right-to-work laws, which prevent union membership and the payment of union dues from being conditions of employment. Kline said he found it "deeply troubling" that the administration was attempting to "undermine a policy embraced by workers and state leaders across the country." He noted that the NLRB has "a track record of seizing routine cases" as vehicles for imposing "sweeping changes" to existing labor policy. Kline and others expressed certainty that the Board will eventually determine unions can solicit grievance fees from nonmembers.

One witness who agreed with this sentiment was Nebraska Governor Pete Ricketts, who termed the NLRB's actions a "new and serious threat." Ricketts claimed being a right-to-work state is an important tool to attract businesses, and that right-to-work states in general offer a competitive advantage over non-right-to-work states.  Ricketts framed the issue as one of employee choice, and said the NLRB's proposed change in policy would constitute a direct attack on the rights of the 25 right-to-work jurisdictions: "the NLRB is threatening to usurp the power of states and impose fees on free people through Board fiat."

Mark Mix, President of the National Right to Work Committee, emphasized the issue is not between labor and management, but between unions and workers. He said right-to-work laws offer the "simple freedom to choose whether or not to financially support the labor union that has imposed its monopoly power over you."  Permitting a "fee-for-grievance" scheme would effectively allow unions to extract fees that could exceed union dues, leaving the right-to-work laws on the books, albeit in emasculated form.

In response to a question posed by Rep. Bradley Byrne (R-AL), Mix explained that the NLRB is attempting to do an "end run" around the Taft-Hartley Act. In his written testimony he explains:

The grievance process is entirely controlled by the union contract, and it is entirely inseparable from the contract. If the NLRB could legally force workers to pay for grievance processing, it would directly contradict section 14(b) of the Taft-Hartley Act and fundamentally undermine every existing state Right to Work law.

A couple of panelists and Committee members framed it as a "free rider" issue, and whether employees who benefit from the grievance process should be forced to pay for it.

Others said it was a matter of keeping unions vital. For instance, Rep. Bobby Scott (D-VA) said the question is "whether you want a weaker or a stronger union movement." Elise Gould, Senior Economist and Director of Health Policy Research at the Economic Policy Institute, said that unions are weaker in states with right-to-work laws in place.

Chairman Kline concluded the hearing by noting various witnesses set forth a "battle of statistics" regarding the effects of right-to-work laws on jobs and the economy, and said the Committee would need to properly review the contrasting figures.

Meanwhile, the Board has extended the deadline to July 15 for submitting input on the grievance fee issue.

A complete list of panelists and links to their testimony can be found here.

Information contained in this publication is intended for informational purposes only and does not constitute legal advice or opinion, nor is it a substitute for the professional judgment of an attorney.