What is the Difference Between “At Will” and “Right to Work”?

Sometimes I will be speaking to a potential client about what they think was an unlawful termination and they will say something like “I know Georgia is a right to work state” or “even though Georgia is a right to work state…”. I have to stop them because they are confusing two different concepts.

At will and right to work are unrelated concepts that have somehow become intertwined in the public consciousness. Every state in the US is “at will”, but not every state is “right to work”.

At will employment is something I have written about before. In essence, at will employment means both employer and employee can end the employment relationship at anytime for any reason. At will employment was developed during the late 19th century and became the general rule across the US by the 20th century. The at will doctrine governs the relationship with between the employer and the employee.

In contrast, right to work has nothing to do with the relationship between the employer and the employee. Right to work is a relatively new concept that has been part of a conscious push by business interests to weaken the power of labor unions. In a nutshell, right to work law allow non-union members in union organized workplaces avoid paying certain union dues.

Right to work laws originate out of the changes to the National Labor Relations Act of 1931 made as part of the Taft-Hartley Act of 1947. Taft-Hartley allowed individual states to outlaw “union security” which created the conditions to implement right to work laws.

Currently 25 states have right to work law on the books. In these states the law can invalidate contracts made between the employer and a union. In the other 25 states there are no right to work laws, but every state employment is still at will.

It’s not a huge deal to mix up at will and right to work. I’m not a big fan of the concept of at will employment, but it has a history. Right to work has a short but dishonorable history rooted in anti-union feelings fuelled by up anti-communism (and racism). Mixing at will and right to work gives right to work laws some of the historical credibility of at will employment. It kind of makes right to work seem old and “the way it has always been” when in fact many states’ right to work laws were only passed in the last couple of decades.

Hopefully this article has helped to explain the difference between at will employment and right to work laws. If you are in Georgia and have questions please contact employment law attorney Benjamin Kandy.


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