A Libertarian Case Against “Right to Work Laws” (and other forms of anti-unionism)

In conversations with some of the more mainstream libertarians I know, I have asked: “Should it be legal for bosses to tell their employees: Perform oral sex on me or you’re fired?”

The answer is typically: yes. They tell me “people should be able to do anything with their property they like, so long as doing so does not interfere with the property rights of others.” Apparently this goes beyond sexual favors. They will tell me that a consistent free marketer is forced to conclude that bosses should be free to ask employees do what ever crazy thing they want, and fire them for not doing so. While, this interpretation makes a good bit of sense, I think they are overly willing to overlook the role of the state in the existing power asymmetry between bosses and employers.

Needless to say, if asked should bosses be free to make employees wear silly uniforms, get tested for drugs, forbid tobacco use even outside of work, or refuse service to people of different ethnicities, many libertarians and quite a few conservatives, say will yes. From my experience, this is usually accompanied with arguments that the market penalizes firms that practice these kind of policies, with loss of business or good employees. While this may be debatable, it is consistent with the view that people should be free to do business or refuse business with whoever they choose, on their own terms.

Here is where the inconsistency comes in. The same libertarians types who express support for the rights of employers to demand oral sex or discriminate against various ethnic groups, have one thing that they think bosses should never be allowed to demand their employees do: join a labor union. This strikes me as a big double standard, but support for “right to work laws,” are surprisingly common among libertarians.

When I point this out, the response I get is “voluntary union membership is fine, but involuntary unions should be outlawed”. I hear this from the same people, who, in other contexts argue that “no one forces you to work for your boss.” In other words, doing what is required in any private sector job is a voluntary act, whether it be taking out trash or cooking hamburgers. This in itself is somewhat debatable, as many people do their jobs out of economic necessity, and really don’t have much say in the options given to them. But if we assume, for the sake of argument, that all private sector jobs are completely voluntary, then how can we say that being asked to join a union is any different than any other workplace demand?

It may be argued that the bosses or property owners usually don’t want closed shops and that unions force it on them. This may be true, but certainly somewhere there is a would be boss that wants to open a union-only shop, and from a free market perspective shouldn’t he be allowed to? Shouldn’t peaceful negotiations between individuals and their employees not be the state’s business?

This is not to say that I like the idea of the closed shops. I would prefer organized labor not use that technique. Being made to pay dues as a condition of employment does not appeal to me. At the same time, I do not like the government telling individuals how they can negotiate with their employees or how their business must be organized.

I would prefer complete government neutrality towards labor activism. That is, government that neither actively promotes or disrupts union activity. The laws that gave labor unions legal recognition came with a heavy price for the unions. The Taft-Hartley amendments to the Wagoner act, for example, largely forbid organized labor from using the tactics that got the act passed in the first place. These tactics include “wild cat” strikes, secondary boycotts, and sympathy strikes and boycotts (strikes by laborers in one firm or industry in support of strikers in another). Furthermore, the new amendments required laborers to give notice 80 days before strikes and other forms of bargaining activity. The current regimes require a majority of workers to form a legally recognized union, as opposed to unrecognized non-majority unions, and this rule greatly reduces effectiveness.

The labor movement emerged in a time that many argue to be one of the most free market periods in American history, without any government assistance or recognition. It’s greatest success came before it was encumbered with state recognition and the laws that came with it. A consistent libertarian should drop any anti-organized labor prejudices he has, and realize that empowered work force can be part of the free market and can make the distribution of power in the economy a little bit fairer.

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