I've been a union member — of the United Auto Workers, in fact, via the National Writers Union's odd connection with that organization — so I don't share the seemingly automatic bias against organized labor held by many "free-market" types who stray into pro-business territory, which ain't the same thing. In fact, I lost a consulting gig with one group for, basically, voicing the sentiments in the last sentence. I also consider the restrictions right-to-work laws impose on bargaining between unions and businesses to violate freedom of contract and association. So I'm not cheerleading for the right-to-work law just passed in Michigan, which bans closed shops in which union membership is a condition of employment. I'm disappointed that the state has, once again, inserted itself into the marketplace to place its thumb on the scale in the never-ending game of playing business and labor off against one another. (For discussion of how that thumb is already on the scale, please see, "Sure the Market Isn't Free, So Why Make It Even Less Free With Right-To-Work Laws?")
In an article for The Freeman after Indiana approved similar legislation, Gary Chartier stated the case well:
If employers choose to conclude union-shop contracts with unions, what gives the Indiana legislature the right to interfere?
Employers own the wages they will pay and the sites where work will be performed under such contracts. So it’s their right to dispense the wages and make the sites available specifically to union members, just as it’s their right, more generally, to trade with anyone they choose.
When a legislature interferes with voluntary employment contracts, it infringes people’s freedom to bargain with their own labor and possessions. Treating this kind of interference as acceptable means licensing arbitrary interventions into the market by politicians, who are ill-equipped to second-guess the decisions made by the real people making work agreements with one another.
Chartier went on to defend not only the right of businesses and unions to negotiate the terms of employment in a workplace, but also the (sometimes) value of unions. I agree with him when he writes:
Supporting a free society means embracing people’s freedom to form unions. And it means acknowledging that unions—and union-shop agreements—can offer both workers and employers something valuable.
Unions can help to secure workers predictable terms of employment and protect them against arbitrary dismissal. And a union contract can help make workplaces more predictable for employers, ensure that information is disseminated to workers, and reduce a variety of workplace transaction costs.
This is not to say that unions are always good. It means that, when the state isn't involved, they're private organizations that can offer value to their members. In fact, I found the NWU (and UAW) helpful for a while, primarily through the benefits the union offered and through the NWU's advocacy on the issue of electronic rights for written material at a time when the Web was first creating a host of new opportunities for writers and publishers alike. Eventually, the value of the benefits petered out for me, and then-union chief Jonathan Tasini's habit of veering into Albert Shanker-ish territory finally put me off enough to quit. But I can imagine re-joining a union under the right circumstances. I can also imagine resenting being forced into a union if I found out that it was a condition of employment in a desired job — but I also chafe against drug tests, sensitivity training, and some of the other conditions I've encountered over the years.
The ideal role for the government in business-labor relations is to stay the hell out of it and let the parties work things out themselves. I may prefer one outcome or another, but I don't have the right to enforce it by law, and that's what right-to-work legislation does.
Our own Brian Doherty wrote about libertarians' sometimes problematic relationship with unions last year.
Addendum: Some commenters point out that Michigan had earlier legislated in favor of unions. The economist Percy Greaves addressed this issue, writing, "the agitators for ‘right-to-work’ laws forget . . . that the problem is basically one of getting the government out of moral business transactions and not into them . . . . The economic answer is to repeal the bad intervention and not try to counterbalance it with another bad intervention."