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

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