TOS Blog: Daily Commentary from an Objectivist Perspective

End “Collective Bargaining Rights” and “Right-to-Work” Laws

As Michigan lawmakers moved toward enacting “Right-to-Work” legislation earlier this month, President Obama swept into the state to defend employees’ “right to bargain for better wages.” Governor Rick Snyder subsequently signed the measures into law.

Of course, when Obama speaks of the “right to bargain,” he does not mean the right of individuals to freedom of association and contract; he means the “right” of the state to force employers to negotiate with unions. And, of course, the state has no such right. But nor are the so-called “Right-to-Work” laws an equitable solution.

“Right to work laws” essentially outlaw agreements between unions and companies that require membership in, or financial support of, the union as a condition of employment—the so-called “closed,” agency, or union shop. These laws are alleged to protect workers’ rights to freedom of choice in regard to his association with a union.

Employees, whether individually or collectively or through a representative, do have a right to bargain non-coercively with willing employers. Accordingly, a company and its employees have a right to negotiate a voluntary contractual agreement that requires union membership as a condition of employment. But “Right-to-Work” laws, by outlawing union shops, violate employers’ rights to set employment terms, including the right to contract exclusively with a union if it chooses.

“Right-to-Work” laws emerged as a reaction to other rights-violating laws that impose an alleged “right to bargain for better wages”—”bargain,” here, meaning “coerce”—which “right” is otherwise known as collective bargaining “rights.” These “rights”—which are not rights but government-granted permissions to violate the rights of others—emerged under laws such as the National Labor Relations Act, also known as the Wagner Act, which force companies to “bargain” with unions.

A proper, rights-protecting government does not pass such laws. Nor does it outlaw voluntary union shops. As long as there is no fraud, breach-of-contract, or other rights-violating actions, the government has no role in labor-management relations. The government properly steps in only to protect the rights of individuals to contract voluntarily, and to enforce the terms of their contracts. “Collective Bargaining Rights” laws and “Right-to-Work” laws are equally rights-violating, thus equally illegitimate. The only fair solution to the kinds of political conflicts that currently beset Michigan is to repeal all such laws. The only fair solution is freedom of contract.

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Image: Bob Glass

Posted in: Unions

Comments are welcome so long as they are civil.
  • Anonymous

    I doubt there’d be any unions under laissez-faire. A union would mean rules applied to company actions; and I see no reason to give up any authority whatever, even if a company is run with no intention of being arbitrary.

  • Terry Schaub

    So, basically what you are saying is that closed shops, union shops are okay because they are really voluntary in that an employee has a choice to work for that company or not. Is that correct?

  • Michael A LaFerrara

    Terry: Union shops are okay IF they are really voluntary; in which case, yes, a prospective employee has a choice to work for that company or not, depending upon what he judges to be, on balance, in his best interests.

  • Michael A LaFerrara

    One small correction: The legislation was enacted last month–December 2012–not “earlier this month” as I erroneously wrote in the opening sentence.

  • Anonymous

    A union is a group of people freely contracting to supply prospective employers with consistent, productive labor. Any individual can negotiate rules of their employment contract with an employer – including rate of pay, overtime, vacation, etc. A union would negotiate the same but for all of its members needed to work for a specific employer, and an employer might find dealing with a union more easy than dealing individually with an equivalent number of random strangers. But that is the nature of capitalism: trading value for value. A laissez-faire union could command high wages if it is willing to guarantee that the workers the union provides to the employer are all highly productive individuals. Effectively, the union is equivalent to an employment contracting agency, with a pool of talent to be placed with appropriate employers. It is in the union’s best interests to maintain a high level of productivity and consistency among its workers (workers show up on time, are easy to work with, require little oversight, perform their jobs with skill, etc.), thereby relieving the employer of the burden of micro-managing the set of employees provided by the union. Contrast that with the uncertainty and unpredictability of searching for, interviewing, qualifying, and testing an equivalent number of random individuals. If unions can provide value, a laissez-faire capitalist system will welcome them with open arms.

  • Bonnie Bertrand

    Right to work laws take the teeth out of collective bargaining laws. To regard them as “equally rights-violating” and “equally illegitimate” fails to recognize this fact.

  • James Young

    So, in light of the inability to repeal one set of coercive laws, libertarians shouldn’t support the mitigation of their coercive effects?

    Too often, libertarians make the perfect the enemy of the good. This discussion is one such instance.

  • Michael A LaFerrara

    Bonnie and James:

    Right-to-work laws go quite a bit beyond mitigating the coercive effects of or taking the teeth out of coercive union-empowering laws: They outlaw certain perfectly legitimate union-company contractual agreements. By accepting this, one accepts as legitimate the same statist premise that underpins laws like the Wagner Act; that government may dictate labor-management contractual terms.

    If a “right-to-work” law actually went no further than to neutralize the effects of bad labor laws, it might be worthy of support from pro-individual rights forces.

  • Friend of John Galt

    I worked 21+ years for a railroad. Starting in a union contract covered clerical position, I worked my way up into management ranks — and was designated as the management “hearing officer” for union employee disciplinary actions during the last couple of years of my employment there.

    First, I was shocked to discover (fresh from the educational system, believing all the lessons taught in Civics classes) that I was forced to pay initiation fees and monthly dues to a union as a condition of my employment. I wondered how this could possibly be true, given the “freedoms” talked about in the Constitution and Bill of Rights. Here, I was being forced, against my will, to join a union.

    It’s not like I applied for membership in the union — which then got me a job (as certain craft unions in the building trades apparently do) — I was interviewed by the HR department of the employer, who decided to offer me a job. The union only became an issue ONCE I WAS EMPLOYED and was told by the UNION representative that I HAD to join — no choice. (Of course, I lived in a “closed shop” state at the time.)

    I later came to understand that there were 26 different unions covering various classes of employees at this particular railroad. (Several unions merged over the years, but there are still 18 or 20 even today.)

    The Wagner Act allowed employees to “have a choice” then turned around and allowed the unions to contractually require that all “covered” employees be required to join the union. (The union calls those who do not join the union as “free riders.”) Between the Wagner Act and the typical union contract, a new hire for a particular position must be compensated under the union agreement (and become a member of the union, unless there is a “right to work” law.)

    What the (typical) Right To Work law provides is that an employee may not be required to joint the union, regardless of what the union contract provides. However, the employee still must be compensated and otherwise work under the conditions specified in the union contract. Philosophically, this is were the problem comes in. As a non-union worker, I should be allowed to negotiate any specific contract with the work rules and conditions acceptable to both the company and myself. To require otherwise removes my right to freely “trade” with this employer. Likewise, the employer may freely (but is actually coerced under the Wagner Act) contract separately with the union members (as a group) and with non-union employees with different work conditions for each worker. That would truly allow traders to properly offer value for value.

    The current coerced union membership system forces employees to pay the full cost of the union dues, paid by deduction from wages, allowing the union to spend the money on almost anything they wish — with a substantial portion of the dues going to support politicians and political policies that I may (strongly) disagree with.

    In a decision involving the very union to which I was an unwilling member, the SCOTUS ruled that a member who objected could not pay that portion of dues beyond the share used to pay for collective bargaining. This halfway measure did allow those who were particularly vehement in their distaste for the union’s anti-freedom leanings could stop supporting them financially for their political activities. However, in general, unions have made ‘opting out’ exceedingly difficult and in some cases unions have singled out “opt outers” and encouraged union members to harass those who exercise this right.

    The Right To Work laws (which vary from state to state) may not be fully acceptable on a “purity” of philosophy consideration, but they are a half-way step to give workers the freedom to not be forced to join a union against their will.

    An additional law should be established to require union dues to ONLY cover the costs of representation. All costs of political advocacy should be financed by voluntary payment collected individually (not by payroll deduction) from willing union members.

    I note that in several states where Right-To-Work laws were passed, the union membership dropped by 90%.

    My experience, as a forced union member, also makes me feel that unions should be required to be re-certified no less than every 3 years following a secret ballot election by the covered workers. (Typical union contracts last 3 years.) I note that “my” union did not “represent” worker interest as much as it represented union interests. New contracts often hurt individual members, while expanding union coverage or gaining other benefits for the union that did not directly improve wages or working conditions. (e.g. In one case, “exempt” workers — the first level supervisors — were required to re-join the union (paying re-instatement fees and dues) even though their pay, working conditions, and duties were completely exempt from and outside the union contract. This was simply a means to increase union revenues at the expense of the employees.)

    If unions were required to recertify before the next contract, then they might pay a little more attention to satisfying the union members rather than focusing on the means to increase the union’s power.