Libertarian History/Philosophy

How to Make Unions More Powerful, the Libertarian Way


Unions, unions, everyone is a-talkin' about unions. Why? Who knows. Must be something in the news. At The Economist's web site, Will Wilkinson makes the case for how a more libertarian legal approach toward unions would in some respects give labor more power. He quotes extensively from left-libertarian leader Kevin Carson:

The right of workers to band together to improve their bargaining position relative to employers is a straightforward implication of freedom of association, and the sort of voluntary association that results is the beating heart of the classical liberal vision of civil society. I unreservedly endorse what I'll call the "unionism of free association". My difficulty in coming out wholeheartedly for private-sector unions as they now exist is that they are, by and large, creatures of objectionable statutes which have badly warped the labour-capital power dynamic that would exist under the unionism of free association…..

I believe it would be much more productive to focus on the ways in which the prevailing legal regime clearly handicaps labour relative to the power unions would have under conditions of free association. I heartily agree with Kevin Carson…when he argues that:

[T]he room for change lies mainly, not with adding further economic intervention to aid labor at the expense of capital, but rather with eliminating those policies which currently benefit capital at the expense of labor. The question is not what new laws would strengthen the bargaining power of labor, but which existing ones weaken it. …

The most obvious forms of state intervention that hobble labor are legislation like:

1) The provisions of Taft-Hartley which criminalize sympathy and boycott strikes;

2) The Railway Labor Relations Act and the "cooling off" provisions of Taft-Hartley, which enable the government to prevent a strike from spreading to common carriers and thus becoming a general strike; and

3) "Right-to-Work" (sic) laws, which restrict the freedom of contract by forbidding employers to enter into union shop contracts with a bargaining agent.

Further, we should examine the extent to which even ostensibly pro-labor laws, like the Wagner Act, have served in practice to weaken the bargaining power of labor. Before Wagner, what is today regarded as the conventional strike—an announced walkout associated with a formal ultimatum—was only one tactic among many used by unions.

Karl Smith at the "Modeled Behavior" blog also riffs off Wilkinson on Carson on unions, and sees in this an unbridgeable gap between libertarians and modern progressives despite Wilkinson's "liberaltarian" dreams:

The decline of economic populism in general and unionism in particular is the front line of the new war. Wisconsin its cause celebre.

This fault line strains a potential liberal-libertarian fusionism to its core. The health care debate could be dismissed as a battle between monopolistic health insurance companies and a monopolistic state for control of fundamentally dysfunctional industry….

Economic populism is precisely what libertarians hope to dissuade liberals of and to the extent public sector unions matter at all, its because they stand in the way [of] educational reform. Making public unions the heroes of a new populist revolution is not going to make any of this any easier.

After noting Wilkinson's call in support of "The right of workers to band together to improve their bargaining position," Smith throws this out there:

may the pharmaceutical companies enter into a collective bargaining agreement with the health insurers that the health insurers will cover only non-generics or they will not be sold any patented drugs at all?

What justification can there be for permitting labor to enter into such contracts but not business? I can't help but suspect that it is a sympathy for economic populism and the notion that what is bad for the business must be good for the worker.

We must not forget that these restrictions work by driving up the cost of hiring the least advantaged members of our society. A man who could be profitably employed before a collective bargaining agreement world may be forced into a lower paying occupation or even out of the labor force entirely in after collective bargaining.

I agree with Smith on the general point that the here-right-now angry fight over a dwindling pie of state resources is going to be very inimical to any cooperation, intellectual or actual, between libertarians and liberals/progressives–unless and until the latter agree that in an age where government can't afford to do all it has customarily been doing, that the main thing they are fighting for is actual social insurance of the sort that will keep people from destitution and starvation.

The Wisconsin fight seems to show far more pure love of defending to the death whatever piece of the pie anyone has sunk their teeth into, as long as we can posit that the "them" being starved to death by evil government are "us." And given the income differences between most public sector employees and the great populist masses, that's been annoyingly easy to do in the Wisconsin crisis.