What Right to Work is (and what it is not)


July 31, 2020 9:42AM

With the state legislature taking the first of three steps to place Right to Work in the state constitution earlier this year, the topic has received more attention than it has in some time. Because Tennessee has been a Right to Work state since 1947, many people have taken it for granted. Others still—mostly opponents—have misconstrued what it actually means, some intentionally so. It’s time to set the record straight.

What is Right to Work?

Right to Work simply means that workers can choose to join a union and pay dues, or they can choose not to do so. In Right to Work states, no one can be forced to pay union dues in order to get or keep their job. In states that don’t protect Right to Work, you could be forced to pay union dues even if you didn’t want to be part of the union or have them represent you. 

Does Right to Work mean you can be fired for any reason?

The biggest misconception about Right to Work is that it allows anybody to be fired by their employer for any reason whatsoever. Yes, it is true that in Tennessee, you can be fired even without cause. But this has nothing to do with Right to Work. That is called “employment at will” and is an entirely separate and unrelated doctrine. Conflating the two is like saying golf and baseball are the same sport just because you use a round white ball to play both.

Will Right to Work prevent teachers from striking in opposition to in-school learning during the pandemic?

The newest myth being slung about by Right to Work opponents is actually coming from teachers unions. They claim that Right to Work prevents teachers from striking if they are concerned about returning to school this fall. Again, it is true that teacher strikes are illegal in Tennessee, but they are not illegal because we are a Right to Work state. It’s a separate law that limits the ability of teachers to strike in opposition to returning to school or for other purposes. 

What should I do if someone wrongly describes what Right to Work really means?

Making Right to Work a catchall for everything someone doesn’t like is both disingenuous and incorrect. If you see someone state—or the media report—that Right to Work is anything but a policy allowing people to choose whether or not to join a union and pay union dues, send them this blog post.