California is not a “right to work” state. Right to work states have laws that make it unlawful to require employees to join a union or pay union dues. Attempts to implement such legislation in California have failed.
The upshot is that private California employers may require you to join a union in order to get hired or keep your job.
What is a right to work law?
A right to work law is a prohibition against employers requiring their employees to join a union as a condition of employment. It means that employers are not allowed discriminate against an employee’s decision not to join the union or their refusal to pay dues.
In states that have right to work laws, you can refuse to join the union or pay dues without fear of losing your job or not getting hired.
In states that do not have a right to work law, your employer can make union membership or dues payments a condition of employment. If you refuse to join or pay dues, you can be fired or denied an employment opportunity.
States can pass right to work laws under section 14(b) of the National Labor Relations Act (NLRA).1
While right to work laws are presented as helping people get jobs, they also undermine unions. In states that have a right to work law, workers can benefit from a union in their workplace without paying dues to the labor organization. This makes them less likely to actually join the union. Without their dues, unions suffer.
Does California have one?
No, California does not have a right to work law. Numerous attempts to make California a right to work state have failed. Private employers and corporations can require you to join a labor union or pay dues. A case by the Supreme Court of the United States, however, forbids public employers from doing so.
A version of a right to work law was on the ballot in 2012. Proposition 32, also called the “Paycheck Protection” initiative, would have banned unions from contributing to politicians with funds deducted from the payrolls of dues payers. It was defeated by a vote of 56.6 percent to 43.4 percent and did not become a part of California employment law.
A ballot initiative with the same policy was also voted on in 2005. Proposition 75 lost by a vote of 53.5 percent to 46.5 percent. Proposition 226 put the same issue to a vote in 1998, but that initiative was also defeated by a vote of 53.2 percent to 46.8 percent.
What are some right to work states?
A little more than half of the states in the U.S. have right to work laws. Some of these include:
- Utah,7 and
These states prohibit the practice of requiring employees to join a union or pay dues in order to work for the employer.
What about public employers?
Federal law prohibits public sector employers from requiring union membership or dues payments. This covers California employees who work for the state or a local government.
In 2018, the Supreme Court of the United States ruled that requiring non-members to pay agency fees violated the First Amendment of the U.S. Constitution’s right that guarantees freedom of speech.9
These agency fees were less than full union dues. They could only be used by the union for expenditures related to collective bargaining activities. They could not be used for the union’s political activities. Nevertheless, the Supreme Court ruled that they amounted to compelled political speech by non-members. The Court ruled that this violated the Constitution.
The case applies to all public sector employees and unions. This includes:
- the State of California,
- county governments, like Orange County,
- city governments, like the City of Los Angeles, and
- other municipal agencies.
What are the pros and cons of a right to work law?
Right to work laws have their supporters and critics. Generally, employers support right to work laws. Workers and unions oppose them.
Supporters of right to work laws argue that they:
- give workers the right to choose whether to join a union or pay dues without hindering their job prospects,
- prevent unions from using undue coercion to gain members or funding,
- keep non-union members or dues payers from seeing their money go towards political activity that they do not agree with, and
- reduce corruption by making it more difficult for unions to contribute to a political campaign and then benefit when their candidate takes office and directs government contracts to them.
Opponents of right to work laws argue that they:
- are actually designed to break apart unions by creating “free loaders” who benefit from a union’s collective bargaining and workplace safety advocacy without having to pay the dues necessary to support it, and
- reduce wages and workplace rights for both union workers and non-union workers in the long run by undermining union activity.10
How is this different from at-will termination?
Right to work laws are frequently confused with at-will employment or at-will termination. The concepts are actually very different in employment law:
- right to work laws forbid mandatory union membership as a condition of employment, while
- at-will employment is an employment status that can be terminated at any time, by either party, for any legal reason.
Every state except Montana presumes an at-will employment relationship. This means that California is an at-will employment state.11 However, it is not a right to work state.
At-will employees can be terminated or can quit, for any lawful reason. Examples of illegal reasons for terminating an at-will employee under California labor law are:
- in violation of an implied employment contract for continued employment,
- in violation of an implied covenant of good faith and fair dealing,
- fraud or misrepresentation, and
- violations of public policy.
These can all amount to wrongful termination.
The most common type of unlawful termination of an at-will employee is likely in violation of a public policy. These are terminations that happen because you:
- refused to violate a law,
- performed a legal obligation,
- exercised a workplace privilege or other legal right, or
- reported a potential legal violation to the government.12
To prove that it was a wrongful termination, you would have to show that:
- the policy at issue comes from a federal or state law, constitutional provision, required ethical rule, or a government regulation,
- the policy benefits the public, rather than just you individually,
- the policy is substantial and fundamental, and
- it was a well-established policy when you were terminated.13
Some examples of public policies that can support a wrongful termination claim when they are violated by your employer are:
- whistleblower protections,
- filing a workers’ compensation claim,
- complaining about unsafe working conditions to the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA),
- making a complaint or participating in a sexual harassment case,
- demanding unpaid wages, including required overtime pay or the minimum wage,
- exercising your employee’s right to medical leave to seek health care for a medical condition,
- terminations that violate your civil rights in the workplace under the California Fair Employment and Housing Act (FEHA), including for discriminatory reasons that target your:
- national origin,
- gender or gender identity,
- sexual orientation,
- marital status,
- genetic information, or
- veteran status.
If you think that you have been wrongfully terminated, you should strongly consider getting the legal advice of an employment attorney from a reputable law firm.
- 29 USC 164(b).
- Arizona Constitution Article XXV.
- Florida Constitution, Article 1, Section 6.
- Idaho Statute 44-2001.
- NRS 613.230 – 300.
- Texas Labor Code 101.052.
- Utah Code 34-34-4.
- Wyoming Statute 27-7-109.
- Janus v. American Federation of State, County, and Municipal Employees, Council 31, 138 S.Ct. 2448 (2018).
- Sudheer Chava, András Danis, Alex Hsu, “The economic impact of right-to-work laws: Evidence from collective bargaining agreements and corporate policies,” Journal of Financial Economics, 137:2;451-469 (August, 2020).
- California Labor Code 2922 LAB.
- California Labor Code 1102.5 LAB.
- City of Moorpark v. Superior Court, 18 Cal.4th 1143 (1998).