The Taft-Hartley Act outlawed the "closed shop." The Act, however, permitted employers and unions to operate under a "union shop" rule, which required all new employees to join the union after a minimum period after their hire. Under "union shop" rules, employers are obliged to fire any employees who have avoided paying membership dues necessary to maintain membership in the union; however, the union cannot demand that the employer discharge an employee who has been expelled from membership for any other reason.
A similar arrangement to the “union shop” is the “agency shop,” under which employees must pay the equivalent of union dues, but need not formally join such union.
Section 14(b) of the Taft-Hartley Act goes further and authorizes individual states (but not local governments, such as cities or counties) to outlaw the union shop and agency shop for employees working in their jurisdictions. Under the "open shop" rule, an employee cannot be compelled to join or pay the equivalent of dues to a union, nor can the employee be fired if he or she joins the union. In other words, the employee has the right to work, regardless of whether he or she is a member or financial contributor to such a union.
The Federal Government operates under "open shop" rules nationwide, although many of its employees are represented by unions. Conversely, professional sports leagues (regardless of where a team is located) operate under "agency shop" rules.
Twenty-eight states do not have right-to-work laws. If no union is formed in an employee's workplace the lack of a right-to-work law does not mean an employee has to join a union. The provisions in right to work laws, as in South Dakota's for example, can give the state Attorney General power to investigate allegations against unions.
Proponents of right-to-work laws point to the Constitutional right to freedom of association, as well as the common-law principle of private ownership of property. They argue that workers should be free both to join unions and to refrain from joining unions, and for this reason often refer to non-right-to-work states as "forced-union" states. They contend that it is wrong for unions to be able to force employers to include clauses in their union contracts which require all employees to either join the union, or pay union dues as a condition of employment. Furthermore, they contend that in certain cases forced union dues are used to support political causes, causes which many union members may oppose.
Proponents also argue that right-to-work states experience higher economic growth and job creation than do non-right to work law states. For example, in recent years all of the new auto factories have been located in right to work states. Moreover, they contend right-to-work states typically have lower unemployment rates.
A March 3, 2008 editorial in The Wall Street Journal compared Ohio to Texas and examined why "Texas is prospering while Ohio lags". According to the editorial, during the previous decade, while Ohio lost 10,400 jobs, Texas created 1,615,000 new jobs. The article cites several reasons for the economic expansion in Texas, including the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA), the absence of a state income tax, and right-to-work laws.
Ohio's most crippling handicap may be that its politicians — and thus its employers — are still in the grip of such industrial unions as the United Auto Workers. Ohio is a "closed shop" state, which means workers can be forced to join a union whether they wish to or not. Many companies — especially foreign-owned — say they will not even consider such locations for new sites. States with "right to work" laws that make union organizing more difficult had twice the job growth of Ohio and other forced union states from 1995–2005, according to the National Institute for Labor Relations.
Critics from organized labor have argued since the late 1970s that while the National Right to Work Committee purports to engage in grass-roots lobbying on behalf of the "little guy", the National Right to Work Committee was formed by a group of southern businessmen with the express purpose of fighting unions, and that they "added a few workers for the purpose of public relations." They also argue that the National Right to Work Legal Defense Foundation has received millions of dollars in grants from foundations controlled by major U.S. industrialists like the New York based John M. Olin Foundation, Inc. which grew out of a family manufacturing business, and other right wing groups.
Opponents further argue that because unions are weakened by these laws, wages are lowered and worker safety and health is endangered. They cite statistics from the United States Department of Labor showing, for example, that in 2003 the rate of workplace fatalities per 100,000 workers was highest in right-to-work states. Nineteen of the top 25 states for worker fatality rates were right-to-work states, while 3 of the bottom 25 states were right-to-work states .
Right to work laws can also be argued against on the basis of libertarian principles, as a government interference in labour relations. However, some libertarians say just the opposite.
The following 22 states are right-to-work states: