If you take a job that is covered by a contract between the employer and a labor union, a representative of the union will typically approach you about membership requirements shortly after you are hired.
Workers have the right, under the National Labor Relations Act (NLRA), to refuse to join a union. However, some collective bargaining agreements -- the contracts between the employer and the union -- require a company to employ only union workers to do certain jobs.
One major reason unions want these contracts is to share the burden of the union's work. The union is required to represent everyone in the bargaining unit, regardless of their union membership. Requiring everyone who gets the benefit of the contract to be a union member solves the problem of so-called "free riders," who reap the windfall of the union's work but don't pay the price.
Generally, a company can't require a worker to become a full union member as a condition of employment, but the worker may have to pay at least some portion of union dues, depending on the basis of his or her objection to the union and the laws of the state where the employer is located.
Unionized work situations generally are either open shop or agency shop. The type of shop that exists within a unionized bargaining unit will be spelled out in the contract between the union representing that unit and the employer. Ask the union representative for a copy of the contract governing your job before you sign up for union membership.
The NLRA allows a union and an employer to enter into a contract called a "union security agreement." Although these contracts cannot require a worker to join a union, they can require workers to make "agency fee" payments to the union as a condition of getting or keeping a job.
An employer that enters into one of these agreements is required to fire workers who don't either join the union or make the payments called for in the contract. Employers with this type of contract are called "agency shops."
However, the NLRA also allows states to prohibit these agreements, and many states have done so. In these states, workers who decide not to join the union cannot be required to pay any fees to the union, nor can they be fired or otherwise penalized for failing to do so. These statutes, called "right to work" laws, basically require that every unionized workplace be an "open shop," in which workers are free to choose whether or not to join or support the union.
As of 2023, the following states have a right to work statute:
Because this is a perennially hot topic, states take up right to work legislation and consider changing their status frequently. Check in with your state's labor department to find out the current rules.
Workers who object to paying union dues either on religious grounds or because they don't support the union's political or other activities (usually those that are unrelated to representing the workers in the bargaining unit) are also entitled to alternative arrangements, even in states that allow union security agreements.
A worker who refuses to join a union or pay union dues for religious reasons may be exempt from paying dues or fees. However, these workers can be required to make a similar contribution to a nonlabor, nonreligious charity organization. And the union can require them to pay the reasonable cost of any grievances the union handles on their behalf.
In states that allow union security agreements, nonmember workers who object to the union's use of fees for political or other nonrepresentational activities are entitled to get that money back. However, they still have to pay their fair share of union money spent on representing the bargaining unit's workers -- including the costs of collective bargaining, contract administration, and grievance processing.
Some states require the union to get the permission of workers -- whether they are members of the union or dues-paying nonmembers -- before collecting any fees for activities not related to representing the workers.