Joey Rivenbark

Right to work is the idea that an employee cannot be pressured or forced into joining a worker union, typically through a company-union agreement. The idea is that workers shouldn't have to pay the dues of a union nor join it if they don't want to. North Carolina is a right-to-work state.

But if you bring up right to work, that’s probably not going to be what ends up discussed. Sure, a lot of people bring up counterarguments to right to work that have merit, but in a lot of cases, the real gripe has to do with another law: employment at will. The ideas of right to work and employment at will are often conflated. The latter is much more consequential to the wellbeing of workers, mainly because of a sneaky conflict of interest.

Employment at will is the idea that the contract between a worker and a company can be terminated at any time for any reason or no reason. Whether by the employer or employee, quitting and firing can happen at any time for any reason (minus those protected by the Constitution). North Carolina is an employment-at-will state.

In a way, this actually seems fair on the surface. It isn't hard to argue that workers get the right to quit at will by also giving the right to their employer to fire them at will. Both sides have power. After all, it would be awful if you were required to do work you expressed you didn't want to do.

However, in practice, the potential consequences recognized by each side in an employment-at-will relationship is disproportionate. Being fired does a lot more to a worker than an employee quitting does to a company. Being terminated can hurt a career, destroy a majority income source and seriously put a person’s life in jeopardy.

On the other side, an employee suddenly quitting doesn't leave a large impact on the reputation of a company and is only a small portion of its workforce. More importantly, numerous firings are usually dealt with over a vast period of time, giving a company time to react and recuperate. This is opposed to a fired worker, who bears the burden all at once.

With this imbalance, it makes sense to have unions. Unions have the potential to check the imbalance of employment at will by doing a number of things to benefit workers, perhaps even when they are suddenly fired.

But there's a problem: Employers can try to terminate benefits to workers who discuss unionizing. It’s often illegal to threaten workers for unionizing, but that hasn't stopped big companies like Walmart. This is a gigantic conflict of interest that flies directly in the face of a balanced deal. Workers are stuck in a catch-22: If they want an equal deal, they should involve themselves in a union, but if they do that, then they’ll lose something anyway. Thus, in North Carolina, individuals constantly have to settle for unfair agreements.

Reworking right to work could have an effect on our state in some capacity, but probably not the one people want most. North Carolinians deserve a fair deal without fear, at the very least, and preferably some job security. The clear way to make that happen is by adding union involvement to the list of unacceptable reasons for termination, making it an exception to the concept of employment at will. Only then can an otherwise decent system function properly.