What Does Right To Work Mean?

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The term "right to work" has been in the news a lot this week. On Tuesday, Michigan became the 24th state to enact right-to-work legislation. It means unions can no longer require workers to pay full dues, even if they're working in a union shop.


We've been hearing the term right-to-work a lot this week. That's because Tuesday, Michigan became the 24th state to enact what's known as right-to-work legislation. It means that unions can no longer require workers to pay full dues, even if they're working in a union shop. We wanted to take a moment to sort out how that phrase caught on in this country.

NELSON LICHTENSTEIN: The phrase right-to-work was first coined in what historians think is 1902.


That's Nelson Lichtenstein. He directs the Center for the Study of Work, Labor and Democracy at the University of California Santa Barbara. Now, remember, 1902 - that's way back at the very beginning of progressive reform movements that swept the country.

LICHTENSTEIN: It's hard to figure out who was the very, very first person ever to use the phrase. But one person who used it was a guy named Ray Stannard Baker, the famous American journalist. He was a progressive but he thought of the union movement as kind of corrupt. And so he was one of the individuals who coined it and made it popular.

MONTAGNE: In the 1940s, after the Second World War and the Depression, the Taft-Hartley Act came along. It was that legislation that actually allowed states to enact the kind of law Michigan passed this week. But Lichtenstein says the words we've heard over and over again, right-to-work, aren't more than a catchy and one could say confusing phrase.

LICHTENSTEIN: It actually has no meaning in the law. It became codified and used by the right. The analogy would be right-to-life. Those who are against abortion, they use the phrase right-to-life.

GREENE: We asked Professor Lichtenstein if there was a phrase the left uses to describe the same thing as right-to-work.

LICHTENSTEIN: You know, collective bargaining as a way of resolving industrial disputes. I don't think that does have the ring to it. And you could say that the liberals need to invent a new phrase.

GREENE: Whatever you call it, the battle of labor policy is far from over.

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