- Project plans
- Project activities
- Legislation and standards
- Industry context
Last edited 19 Jul 2018
Right-to-work legislation and construction
A cornerstone of American labour law is the Taft-Hartley Act 1947, which aimed to restore the balance of power between labour and management after the Wagner Act 1935 that had given certain advantages to trade unions. While it was not mandatory for a construction worker to join a union when they began work for a contractor on a project, they did have to pay ‘dues’ or agency fees to help cover the costs of negotiating, administration, and so on.
Right-to-work legislation is intended to secure the right of workers to choose whether or not to join or financially support a union, by making it illegal to coerce the payment of dues. The 1947 Act prohibited agreements between labour unions and employers by which they would seek to create union-only workplaces.
Typically, a project labor agreement (PLA) enables non-union workers to work on union-controlled construction projects, with the parties (usually project owner and trade union/s) agreeing working conditions, labour rates, benefits, and so on. Right-to-work laws mean that PLAs cannot limit project participation just to union contractors. Unions have to advocate on behalf of non-union member workers on the project as well.
This situation has proven controversial and non-members are often termed ‘free-riders’ – benefiting from the high labour rates, benefits and dispute resolution procedures negotiated through the collective bargaining process of the union, without paying dues. In right-to-work states, where unions negotiate with contractors on behalf of both members and non-members, the members are often required to pay increasingly higher dues to maintain their status.
Over the years, more and more states have passed right-to-work laws, which opponents have argued is a gradual erosion of hard-won union rights and responsibilities from employers. They argue that right-to-work laws weaken the negotiating position of trade unions in trying to improve work conditions and mean that wage levels and health and safety standards are lowered, and point to evidence that suggests that non-union construction sites are more dangerous than union sites.
Defenders of the right-to-work laws argue that they allow construction companies to choose the workforce without pressure being applied from unions to employ their, often more expensive, members. Being able to hire labour that is not affiliated with unions can be seen as a way of reducing project costs. There is also the argument that constitutional rights allow workers the right to freedom of association, enabling them to be a member of a union if they want to or not, and without having to pay dues in order to obtain union project work.
 Find out more
 Related articles on Designing Buildings Wiki
- Construction contractor.
- Construction organisations and strategy.
- Exploring the impact of the ageing population on the workforce and built environment.
- Project labor agreement (PLA).
- Open shop construction.
- Recruiting and retaining talent in the construction industry.
- Relationship management in construction.
- Tackling the construction skills shortage.
- Umbrella companies.
Featured articles and news
The world heritage list has evolved to embrace built, cultural and natural heritage.
The Ocean Cleanup project
The various types of bond and when they are used.
It's vital the industry responds to proposals for reform of the safety regulatory system.
RSHP's Merano wins RIBA accolade.
How to differentiate between partial possession and early use.
Ofwat proposes £12 billion additional investment and £50 bill reductions.
Avoiding 'winner's curse' and other useful info.
Developing test methods for video flame/smoke detectors
Waiting for a new deal ...but will funding materialise?