TOS Blog: Daily Commentary from an Objectivist Perspective

There is No ‘Right to Work’ Against an Employer’s Consent

Tea Party Clashes with UnionsPeople have the right to associate voluntarily and to contract by mutual consent. Those rights have long been under assault by the “progressive” left; now they are attacked by conservatives as well. Today Mitch Daniels, governor of Indiana, signed a “right to work” bill that further erodes freedom of contract.

Conservative writer Liz Peek praises this bill on the grounds “that union labor costs and work rules have become an obstacle to job growth.” No doubt her claims about unions are true. But the problems arise from various federal statutes, including the National Labor Relations (Wagner) Act signed by FDR in 1935, that violate the rights of employers and employees to contract as they see fit. One practical result has been to hamstring the American auto industry, as Daniel J. Mitchell pointed out even before the auto bailouts.

The conservative solution, as articulated by Peek, merely compounds previous violations of freedom of contract with new ones, apparently on the grounds that two wrongs somehow make a right. In her view, the bill is good because it “prohibits contracts requiring workers to pay union dues.” But why should the government be in the business of setting the terms of employment contracts? Employers should be free to hire whomever they want on whatever terms the parties mutually agree to accept.

More broadly, there is no “right to work” against an employer’s consent, any more than there is a “right to health care.” A right refers to a freedom of action—such as the right to seek employment or medical care from willing partners—not to an entitlement to a specific good, service, or outcome. People have the right to work for others only insofar as the employer freely consents to the terms of employment. (Of course, people always have the right to work for themselves using their own labor and resources.)

The solution to rights-violating labor laws is not to impose more rights-violating labor laws, but rather to repeal them all and restore liberty of contract.

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Image: Bob Glass

Posted in: Unions

Comments are welcome so long as they are civil.
  • Andrew Tabar

    The problem being solved here is that in many states, if the shop is unionized, the employee MUST join the union. “right to work” is just a convenient phrase that the conservatives are using.

  • M.J.Banks | M3RL1N

    so much for objective – you can have your union, and raises aquired for all union members, it’s just now that people don’t have to be blackballed for not being in a union – giving them a right to work anywhere

  • Ed Powell

    The history of unions is quite clear: they are
    all coercive organizations–every single one–dedicated to using
    physical violence to get their way.  They have been since the
    beginning.  They are, in essence, criminal organizations, dedicated to
    violence.  They are no different from the Mafia.
    Since unions are at their essence coercive organizations, with
    violence or the threat of violence as their raison d’etre, then, of
    course, in a completely free society, they should not exist at all,
    since the government would ban (and enforce the ban) on the initiation
    of physical force or threats of force between individuals or groups of
    individuals.  Trade associations might exist, and as they are not
    coercive, perhaps some employers would require membership in trade
    associations as a condition of employment, and that would be fine.
    But non-coercive unions, like non-flat tabletops, non-wheeled
    automobiles, non-mortal men, or non-cute kitties, do not exist, and
    have never existed, and this fact needs to inform all of our
    discussions about unions.  We look at unions today and see semi-peaceful
    organizations.  But this is *not* the historical record.  They are
    *not* the Rotary Club.  If the Wagner Act was repealed, unions would
    return to violence, against industry, or more likely against other
    workers (their real enemies).

    The problem with saying that coercive organizations would not exist
    in a free society is that when America was mostly
    a free country, unions *did* exist, caused by the rise of Marxist
    philosophy and some occasional deplorable abuses by employers.
    Neither the violations of rights perpetrated by the unions nor the
    violations of rights perpetrated by these very small numbers of
    employers were dealt with by the government as the rights violations
    they were, sometimes because of bad philosophy and sometimes because
    of corruption or bad government policies.  So I take as my conclusion
    that yes, even in a free society, organizations dedicated to violence
    to achieve their goals will exist.  The question becomes then, can an
    employer require prospective employees to join such an organization as
    a condition of employment, and the answer is no.

    A job is not a “right” of an employee.  But neither is a job
    the “property” of the employer.  A job is a *contract*
    between two people.  There are certain things that are properly
    enforceable in a contract, and some things that are clearly not
    enforceable.  You can think of examples all day, but one obvious one
    is that an employment contract cannot demand that each employee rob a
    bank and bring the loot to the employer as a condition of employment.
    What’s wrong with that, if it’s voluntary, I hear from my libertarian
    friends?  Because it drops the context of what a contract actually
    is.  A contract is both an agreement by two people about a mutually
    beneficial trade, but also it is an agreement that the government is
    charged with enforcing.  One can’t enter into a contract that has as
    one of its conditions the violation of someone’s rights, since then
    the government would be charged with enforcing the violation of
    someone’s rights instead of protecting rights.  So no bank robbery as
    a condition of employment.  The case is somewhat more subtle with
    hiring only people who belong to the Mafia and pay money to the Mafia
    Don out of their paycheck.  [This is the exact case of unions, and you
    must hold this in your mind when you think about this issue].  Paying
    dues, or lending material support, to a criminal organization or an
    organization primarily dedicated to crime, is also a crime and would
    be so in a free country.  So this employment contract would not be
    enforceable in the courts.  How then would it be enforced in reality?
    As it *was* enforced in the late nineteenth century: with a club or a
    knife or a gun.

    The Mafia analogy may strike some people as bizarre, since some local
    unions have evolved into peaceful trade associations these days, and
    many individual rank-and-file union members, some of whom I know, are
    fine people. [No union bosses are fine people].  This apparent
    benevolence of some unions today is because they are backed by an all-
    powerful federal government, who wields the club for them.  But make
    no mistake, the union bosses, like the Mafia Dons, make their true
    nature evident when any of their precious government-supported special
    privileges are even minutely threatened.  Look closely at what
    happened in Wisconsin last year, all of the violence and intimidation
    (threat of violence) that was perpetrated by unions in response to the
    very mild reforms proposed by Gov Walker.

    So, is right-to-work the ideal end state?  Of course not. Only a fully
    free society with laissez-faire economics is.  But don’t make the
    libertarian mistake on the one hand and say, “any voluntary contract
    is fine” while dropping the context of what a contract is, or make the
    better-is-the-enemy-of-perfection mistake either, as Ari does, and think that right-
    to-work is some sort of violation of employers’ rights.  There’s not
    an employer in the country (except maybe GM) who would impose a closed
    shop if they had a choice.  In reality, right-to-work is a lifeline
    thrown to drowning producers that will help keep them above water
    until a more radical cultural change permits real reforms, such as the
    repeal of the Wagner Act.  Plus, most importantly, it is something
    individual states can do to lessen the reach of the federally-imposed
    bureaucracy-union complex without federal legislation.  This alone
    makes it worth supporting.  And since the moral is the practical, we
    see that right-to-work states are doing better in both manufacturing
    (heavily unionized to the point of destruction in closed shop states)
    and local and state government finances (also heavily unionized) than
    their counterparts.  Compare Virginia to Michigan.

    Right-to-work is a good, pro-freedom interim step that can and should
    be supported by all Objectivists and advocates of a free economy.

  • Anonymous

    Ari, I think you miss the point of “right to work” laws. It’s MY right they protect; MY right to accept a job freely offered to me by an employer without having to either join a union or pay union dues. Contracts that would otherwise compel ME to be a member of a group I don’t care to join infringe on MY right of association – or not – as I see fit. 

  • Barbara Nelson

    Yes – the problem is the language used.  The intent of the law (which, Ari, you are right should not have to be passed, as the government has no business interfering in contracts between the employer and employee) is to allow those who do not wish to join a union, to continue to work in a “union shop” (which the employee should be able to do but for the pro-labor union laws that would not exist under laissez faire Capitalism).

  • Anonymous

    We’ve been thrashing this one about in facebook threads because it seems insane. The major premise here is that employer’s are being hurt by RTW laws because it restricts them from accepting an exclusive union contract. But the only thing in today’s business environment making it desirable for a business to accept such a contract is legislative compulsion. No employer in his right mind would want to accept a closed shop because they see great advantages in dealing with today’s wonderful unions. The argument being made here is a defense of a hypothetical work relationship and it ignores the fact that today’s union’s can only arrange exclusive contracts through government force AND that the RTW laws are specifically designed to take this illegitimate power away. What makes this article stand out, is that it takes some exceptional creativity to interpret the adoption of RTW as an abrogation of employer rights. In today’s world, where businesses are crying out for unions to get out of the way, I just imagine telling Hoffa that we oppose RTW because we believe it restricts the rights of employers. I believe he would grin at us amazing suckers!

  • Keith Brandt

    I must respectfully disagree, Ari. Right to work laws are Liberty-loving states’ responses to the labor market distortion that results from the National Labor Relations Act (NLRA) of 1935. That act enabled super-powered unions that have severely damaged our economy over the long run. Right to work laws simply restore some of that lost Liberty. Right to work laws need to be passed by every state. If the NLRA were ever repealed, states would no longer need right to work laws. Then, and only then, should they repeal them or stop passing them.