West Virginia is among the 27 states that have right-to-work laws. The state legislature passed the Workplace Freedom Act in 2016 that prevents an employee from being forced to pay union dues as a condition of employment.
Labor challenged the law in court and lost. The state Supreme Court in 2020 joined every other state and federal appeals court in the country in upholding the constitutionality of right-to-work laws.
However, every right-to-work law in the country would be nullified if the U.S. Congress passes the Protect the Right to Organize (PRO) Act. The bill passed the House of Representatives earlier this year, with five Republicans joining the majority Democrats, and is now under consideration in the Senate.
A key provision of the bill wipes out right-to-work laws. It states that “all employees in a bargaining unit shall contribute fees to a labor organization for the cost of representation, collective bargaining, contract enforcement and related expenditures as a condition of employment [emphasis added].”
Unions have long argued that if they are going to represent all workers, then each must help defray the cost of those services. That avoids the “free rider,” where an employee gets union-negotiated wages and benefits but does not have to pay the dues.
However, that also translates into compulsory union membership (or at the least dues paying) if the union is the exclusive bargaining agent with the employer.
The U.S. Supreme Court ruled in Janus v. AFSCME that the free speech and free association rights of non-union members take precedence over a union’s efforts to collect dues. Additionally, a union enjoys significant benefits by virtue of being the exclusive representative of all employees.
The PRO Act would ignore those constitutional protections. It would force workers to pay union dues if they wanted to keep their jobs.
West Virginia’s Senators are split on the bill.
Senator Joe Manchin agreed to co-sponsor the legislation “after discussions with West Virginia labor organizations, who represent thousands of West Virginia workers.” Manchin said the PRO Act “will level the playing field and protect workers’ rights.”
Senator Shelley Moore Capito is on the opposite site. “I oppose the PRO Act,” Capito told me on Talkline recently. “I am not anti-union and my union friends in West Virginia know this, but I don’t know why we would be overriding the will of our legislatures.”
Twenty-seven states have passed right-to-work laws because the public policy makers in those states have made those decisions. The laws have passed constitutional muster. The PRO Act is a federal overreach that infringes on the ability of individual states to conduct business and craft their work economies as they see fit.