Right To Work Laws: A Libertarian Analysis

by Walter Block

Recently by Walter Block: Response to Questions on Libertarianism

Various types of union security agreements exist. Among the more common are:

Closed shop. The employer agrees to hire only union members. Any employee who quits the union, or is expelled from it, must be fired

Union shop. The firm may first employ non union members, but the employee must eventually join the union

Agency shop. The employer may hire anyone he wishes regardless of their union membership, and the employee need not join the union. However, all non-union employees must pay a fee to the union to cover the costs of collective bargaining

Dues check off. A contract between the employer and union where the former agrees to pay to the latter the union dues from each worker’s paycheck

Right to work laws would forbid all such agreements. One justification for such legislation is that these union contracts are invalid, since they are made under duress. Organized labor compels businesses to sign them by threatening all sorts of violence against them, some legal, others illegal. But suppose, hypothetically, that an agreement of this sort were strictly voluntary. Posit that an extreme left wing, "progressive," firm such as Ben and Jerry's ice cream or Michael Moore Enterprises wanted, desired, was more than willing to, engage in such a commercial interaction with a union. Right to work laws, in forbidding such an arrangement, would then be a violation of the rights of two consenting parties to engage in a capitalist act. Thus, on that ground alone such legislative enactments are incompatible with libertarianism.

But, do not right to work laws prohibit coercion? Under a closed shop, for example, the worker has no right to be employed by a firm, nor the latter to hire him, unless he first joins the union. Is not a closed shop, then, an instance of coercion? And should not libertarians thus applaud right to work legislation, since it puts an end to this type of compulsion?

No, and no. Suppose woman A and man B agree to a monogamous relationship (marriage). This means that woman A may not go to bed with man C. But what of the claim that this arrangement is a violation of man C's "right" to have a sexual relationship with woman A? This is silly. There is no such thing as a "right" to have intercourse with woman A, or with any other woman.

There is an exact parallel between this scenario and the one depicted above. Let us follow the same situation, only applied, now, to labor relations, not personal relationships.

Suppose company woman A and worker man B agree to a monogamous relationship (the union shop marriage). This means that company woman A may not hire man C, who is not a union member. But what of the claim that this is a violation of man C's "right" to work for have a sexual relationship with company woman A. This is silly. There is no such thing as a "right" to have a job with company A, or any other employer.

To put this into other words, a "right to work" is a positive right. It implies an obligation of someone else to hire the person in question. Similarly, a "right" to food, clothing or shelter would oblige others to provide these things for the persons who have such "rights." But positive rights are a direct violation of the libertarian code, which is based upon the non aggression principle. These types of "rights" are a not so subtly hidden demand for wealth at other's expense, e.g., they amount to a call for, or support of, theft. No libertarian can support them.

In contrast, libertarians do indeed support negative rights, the right not to be murdered, raped, aggressed against. And, yes, this does impose an obligation upon others – to refrain from such nefarious deeds.

Of course, the firm, under the closed shop, is "compelled" not to hire a non union worker, that is, it is prohibited from so doing. But we are positing for the moment that this prohibition stems from a prior contractual agreement, the closed shop, so it is not a compulsion at all. In the same way, the monogamously married woman is "compelled" not to get it on with any other man; she is prohibited from engaging in adultery. But this prohibition stems from a prior contractual agreement, marriage, so it, too, does not amount to any compulsion.

Let us leave the realm of deontology for the moment, and enter that of utilitarianism. There is no doubt that, other things equal, right to work states would be more prosperous, have less unemployment, than those without this legislation. Why? This is because unions, as presently constituted, are an economic tape worm. They suck the substance out of companies with their strikes, slow-downs, work-to-rule campaigns, etc. It is no accident that the northeast part of the U.S., where unions are strongest, has become a "rust belt." Nor that the south, where they are weakest, has been booming, relatively speaking. To give just one instance, the northern auto workers "earned" something in the neighborhood of $70 per hour (when all fringe benefits are included) for semi-skilled work on the assembly line; as a result, Detroit is a husk of its former self. In contrast, auto workers in the southeast earn a small fraction of that hourly wage. As a result, "run away" shops are seeking to vote with their feet, moving from north to south, in their search for a more reasonably priced labor force.

Does this mean that the libertarian opposition to right to work laws, while just, is also economically inefficient? Not a bit of it. There is a right way and a wrong way to combat evil unionism, and right to work laws are in the latter category.

What is wrong with unions? Why are they such evil, monstrous organizations? All present labor unions engage in two activities, one of them justifiable, the other despicable. What is the proper role for a union, in the libertarian society? It is to try to raise total wages (money wages plus fringe benefits or working conditions or psychic income) to the highest level possible. And, to that end, these institutions have two means at their disposal, one licit, the other decidedly not.

The former is the mass quit. When one worker goes to the boss and demands a raise, he is not likely to be met with much success. The owner of the firm might well follow the "my way or the highway" philosophy. But if the employee can credibly threaten that if the raise is not forthcoming all 500 employees will down tools, success is more likely. The owner has contracts to fulfill, a work force that actually functions, etc. Any one worker has the right to quit his job, based on the libertarian notion of free association. (The main, and indeed the only real problem with slavery was that you couldn't quit. If the slave could quit at any time, all of the evils of this "curious" institution would evaporate in one fell swoop.) He does not lose this right even if he does this in concert with his fellow employees (although early on, anti-trust legislation was improperly applied to people who engaged in these "restraints of trade.") So much for proper unionism. If organized labor limited itself to this one tactic, it would be acting compatibly with the non aggression principle (NAP) of libertarianism, and would not cause any economic crisis.

But unions employ another strategy as well: restrictions on entry. In the bad old days, organized labor would engage in a sit-in, or a picket line (both amount to trespass). They would stop all shipments into our out of the plant. They would brand as "scabs" all those who wanted to take the job offers made by the firm, the ones they were refusing (why this never qualified as "hate speech" is beyond me; no, it isn't really, but it is entirely a different matter), and through violence not allow the employer to hire them.

To resort to our marriage analogy once again, it would be justified for a man to divorce his wife (or the other way around, of course). But it would be the height of barbarism for him to surround his ex wife's home with his friends, and them all threaten to beat up any man she wished to date after her marriage was over. Yet, this is precisely what was being done in the early days of unions, and still occurs even in recent times.

Nowadays, of course, this "blue collar" beating up of scabs has given way to labor legislation which compels the owner of the company to "bargain fairly" with the union. But just as husbands and wives should not be forced to "bargain fairly" with one another when either of them wants a divorce, neither should this compulsion be imposed on either side in labor management relations. The firm does not wish to "bargain fairly" with its unionized employees; it desires to hire replacement workers, or "scabs." It is prohibited from doing so, in direct violation of its freedom of association. It is forced to "associate" with people it wishes to avoid. There is a strong analogy between this situation and outright slavery: both cases are instance of the violation of freedom of association.

So what is to be done about the union menace? Simple, take away from them their illegitimate tool, trespass and restrictions on entry, and leave them with their one licit tactic, mass quits. It is contrary to libertarian principles to do anything else: to democratize them (ensure they use secret ballots), take away their right to support political candidates, or to forbid them by law to engage in freely made contractual agreements, such as union shops, closed shops, etc. We would be aghast if the chess club were prohibited from supporting political candidates, or were compelled to run according to democratic principles. The chess club is a legitimate organization, and thus, at least according to libertarianism, may do anything it wishes, provided, only, that it does not violate the NAP. Ditto for a properly defanged union movement; once it is fully legitimate, it may carry on in any way it wishes.

Forbidding political participation, compelling democracy, imposing right to work laws, etc., are all second best attempts to wrestle evil unionism to the ground. If it is politically possible to counter organized labor in any other way, these sorts of things may well be justified. But, if we are to properly apply libertarian principles to this arena, let us have no more of this "right to work" nonsense. We should leave off actually believing that voluntary agreements for union or closed shops for some strange reason are compulsory. Of course, they are not. They are merely an instance of monogamy in labor relations.

If we are to effectively promote libertarianism, we must start off by accurately understanding our own philosophy. Proponents of "right" to work legislation fail in this regard. At the very least, if they fully understood libertarianism, they would say something like: Of course, there is no "right" to work. However, rampant unionism is running amok, and the only way we can deal with this menace to civilization is via right to work legislation (or prohibiting them from engaging in the political process, or shoving democracy down their throats, etc.) We favor right to work laws not because they are just, per se, but due to the fact that they ward off a far greater evil.

I don't say that I favor engaging in this sort of second bestism. There are problems with it. It is all too similar for my tastes to Milton Friedman’s proposals for school vouchers, etc. But, at least people who argue in this way demonstrate a keen appreciation of what libertarianism is all about. There would be something to be said in behalf of these laws on that ground alone.

For more of my views on these matters, see Block, Walter E. 2008. Labor Economics from a Free Market Perspective: Employing the Unemployable. London, UK: World Scientific Publishing.