Labor law and employment law suffer a lot of confusion because there are a number of terms and phrases with specific legal meaning but are often misunderstood by employees and employers to have a different meaning. As a result, employees in Colorado and other states often misunderstand their employee rights and employer often misunderstand their duties in the workplace. “Right to work” is one of the least understood terms within labor and employment law. It is commonly confused with “at-will employment” and misunderstood within the proper context. Colorado is not a right to work state under its labor laws but understanding what that term means is as important as knowing the answer to that question. Today’s post will try to clarify what “right to work” means under Colorado labor law.
What does “right to work” mean under labor and employment law?
“Right to work” developed a meaning under labor law to mean those states that prohibit employers and unions representing their employees from requiring employees to join the union as a condition of employment. The term is not a legal term, rather it is a propaganda term adopted by anti-union advocates much in the same way pro-choice/pro-life take up respective positive messaging on their positions on abortion. Nevertheless, right to work is just as cemented in labor law language as having a particular meaning.
Union security agreements generally require that employees within the bargained unit must be union members or must pay a partial dues payment to the union for representation without membership. Proponents of union security agreements understood that requiring union membership would strengthen the financial and human support behind the union. It would also ensure greater labor peace between workers and employers by avoiding fights (sometimes violent) over whether to keep the workplace unionized. Opponents recognized that if unions could not ensure all workers in a bargained unit supported the union financially or personally that the unions would have fewer resources to agitate into other workplaces. It would create a free rider problem and erode voluntary membership. (This issue is discussed further in the recent post discussing the Janus decision by the Supreme Court.)
Brief history of right to work laws
Early labor law in this country left open the opportunity for employers and unions to bargain over these security agreements but anti-union lobbyists in the early twentieth century lobbied for laws to prohibit them. During the New Deal Congress passed the National Labor Relations Act of 1935 (NLRA and also referred to as the Wagner Act) authorized union security agreements. The NLRA authorized employers to enter into four arrangements:
- Closed shop: Employees must be a member of the union as a condition of employment. If the employee fails to maintain membership (such as not paying dues) then the employer must terminate the employee.
- Union shop: Like a closed shop but the employer may hire non-union employees but as a consition of employment the non-members must become union members within a set period of time.
- Agency shop: Employees do not have to be union members but non-members pay agency fees which are partial dues to cover the cost of representing non-members in the bargained unit. The union represents both union member and non-members in the bargained unit for the purpose of the bargained agreement.
- Open shop: Employees do not have to be union members and the employer cannot fire employees for choosing to join or not join a union.
In 1947 anti-union lobbyists prevailed with the passage of the Labor Management Relations Act over President Truman’s veto which severely limited these arrangements. The LMRA bans closed shops entirely. It amended the NLRA to allow union shops and agency shops subject to state laws which may ban one or both. State laws banning union shops or agency shops are right to work laws. Currently twenty-eight states have right to work laws (but not Colorado).
What is the difference between right to work and at-will employment in Colorado?
Right to work and at-will employment deal with two different issues under labor and employment law. They are commonly confused–partially because they sound similar–but have importantly different meaning.
As we’ve already discussed, right to work laws deal with prohibiting employers and unions from agreeing how to organize their workplace.
At-will employment is an employment condition in which the employment relationship exists as long as both employee and employer want it to continue. Either employer or employee may terminate employment for any reason not prohibited by law (such as unlawful forms of employment discrimination). You can be an at-will employee in a right to work state (such as Texas) or a state that allows union shops or agency shops. In Colorado employees are by default at-will employees unless hired under a collective bargaining agreement or an individual employment contract.
Right to work and at-will employment intersect as issues when an employee works under a collective bargaining agreement. When an employee works under a collective bargaining agreement (CBA) the employment relationship is no longer at-will. It is a contractual relationship governed by the CBA and labor law. The CBA typically includes conditions and procedures for disciplining and terminating an employee. It may also set requirements for employees to give notice or agree not to work for competitors for a period of time.
The standard for termination, at least from the employer, is a just cause standard, rather than at-will. An employer can only fire an employee within the confines of the CBA and must provide the employee an opportunity to be heard and oppose the termination. Often a CBA will establish an arbitration or other hearing procedure for this purpose. An employee cannot be fired for any other reason or without “industrial due process”.
Because Colorado is not a right to work state, an employee may be hired immediately into a collective bargaining agreement and not suffer at-will employment. If the employee is not within a bargained unit then the employee is an at-will employee (or has an individual employment contract) regardless of the state’s union shop laws.
Why should Colorado employees care about right to work or at-will employment?
There are several reasons why Colorado employees might care about the unionization laws in Colorado. An obvious reason is for workers seeking employment in a union shop or workers not in a union shop considering unionization and what requirements they may want the union to impose on employment. Colorado’s state labor law includes unique functions for unionization that must be considered before a unionization campaign begins.
Another important reason relates to when an employee is terminated from employment. Much of the confusion around right to work and at-will employment is why an employer may lawfully fire an employee and when that employee might have a wrongful termination claim. An at-will employee can pursue wrongful termination claims when the employer violates a state or federal employment law prohibiting termination for the employer’s particular motivation. (But unemployment benefits may take a broader approach.) Employees covered under an employment contract or CBA may have contractual remedies for a termination that violates the agreement or because the way the employer terminated the employee violates the procedural requirements of the agreement. If you believe you have a wrongful termination claim then you should contact a Denver employment lawyer right away.