Right to Work

Sure the Market Isn't Free, So Why Make It Even Less Free With Right-To-Work Laws?


Robert F Wagner

My post criticizing right-to-work laws has, itself, come under considerable criticism, today. Over at the Competitive Enterprise Institute's OpenMarket.org, Ivan Osorio states that criticism succinctly, targeting arguments that I (and Gary Chartier, who I quoted) made that characterized right-to-work legislation as assaults on freedom of contract and association:

Chartier's and Tuccille's argument makes sense in a political vacuum, but not in the reality we live in. Under the National Labor Relations Act (NLRA), which regulates all private sector labor relations in the U.S. (except for railroads and airlines), mandates closed shops, while allowing states to opt out of the closed shop mandate through right-to-work laws. So, under the NLRA, closed union shops can be either mandated or forbidden. Yes, making closed shops optional for employers would be a much better option, but until the NLRA is repealed, right-to-work laws remain the most viable palliative to compulsory unionism.

True, federal legislation does regulate labor relations in the United States. Right-to-work laws are certainly not intruding into a free marketplace for labor. Not only does the NLRA (also known as the Wagner Act) use government power to favor organized labor unions over businesses and independent workers, but the Taft-Hartley Act then limits labor actions and political speech.

That the Taft-Hartley Act was passed in 1947 as a response to the perceived excessive power that unions gained from the 1935 NLRA illustrates one of the problems with right-to-work laws — one that free-marketeers and libertarians are usually quick to point out. That is, the distortions in human life caused by intrusive laws always raise the temptation to patch over the problems with additional legislation. That additional legislation is likely to lead to more problems … That's why we're always better off dumping bad laws than trying to "fix" them in a spiraling game of spackle-the-law books.

However, there is a group that benefits from responding to laws with more laws, and that group consists of politicians and government officials. Note that the long-standing positions of the major political parties are represented both in the federal legislation mentioned above and the current battle over right-to-work laws. With the NLRA, Democrats positioned themselves as advocates for labor, while Republicans responded to business concerns with Taft-Hartley. Republicans now champion right-to-work on behalf of beleaguered businesses, while Democrats tout their opposition to such laws to their union-member constituents. By intruding the state into labor-business relations, politicians elevated their own importance and power in a way that simply staying out of the matter, or repealing laws, never could,

Right-to-work laws at the state level "balance" federal labor legislation only by countering state intrusion with state intrusion. The result is certain to be a continuing effort to "fix" problems caused by earlier laws. And politicians will be at the center of it all, building their authority while playing the sides against each other.

A free market in which businesses and labor negotiate conditions on their own can be created only by actually freeing the market. It will also reduce the power of government and the role of politicians. Yes, that is more difficult than enacting ever-more legal spackle.