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Are Right-to-Work Laws a Boon or a Bribe?

Here’s why libertarians are split on right-to-work.

Sen. Kamala Harris (D-CA) isn’t afraid to show off her authoritarian side, proving that pretty faces can be big government swamp creatures, too. She not only plans to expand the power and scope of the executive branch on the contentious gun issue but also is interested in bypassing states’ rights to prohibit right-to-work (RTW) laws. She doesn’t even want to “have that conversation,” preferring to use executive authority and dismiss the will of half the nation’s states. This is her “I have a pen and a phone” moment, but anything to get the endorsement and vote of powerful union interests.

Kamala Harris

On the fallacious argument that right-to-work is an anti-worker policy, a potential Harris administration would have the federal government intervene and impose Washington’s will on South Dakota or Wisconsin. Dismissing the integrity of a voluntary agreement between employer and employee, the government aims to be the third wheel.

But why is RTW so vilified? All it does is provide choice. Employees are not required to join a union or pay fees as a condition of employment. They still have the option of doing so, but they do not have a coercive force making the decision for them. Indeed, if a union is a benevolent energy, then anyone would want to sign up happily.

Surprisingly, libertarians are split on RTW. On one hand, liberty-minded folks contend that it advances worker freedom. On the other, libertarians assert that it violates the freedom of contract and enhances government power.

Is Right-to-Work Right?

Prior to the National Labor Relations Act of 1935 becoming the law of the land as part of the New Deal, workers were not required to join a union nor were they obligated to pay dues. The Wagner Act eliminated this individual freedom, giving Big Labor unprecedented power. It mandated that if most workers chose to unionize, then that group represented all the workers and forced those sitting on the sidelines to join the hive or at the minimum get fleeced.

Many people come to the defense of this legislation by arguing that it is only fair for all workers to contribute because there is a bargaining agent representing the entire workforce. There are two problems with this argument.

The first is that if it really is a generous unit, then why can’t it rely on voluntary contributions?  Consider the Salvation Army, which has been around for more than 150 years, relying on charity to alleviate suffering, help people rebuild their lives, and come to the public’s rescue following a natural or man-made disaster. It doesn’t force people to give money, depending only on donations.

The second is the issue of an exclusive bargaining agent. If Rick and Ilsa were permitted to represent themselves and sign contracts that are agreed upon between both parties, then those who want to remain non-unionized would not be freeloading since the agent is not bargaining on their behalf.

That said, many prominent libertarians, such as Milton Friedman, Ludwig von Mises, and Murray Rothbard, opposed RTW back in the day. Rothbard wrote in The Case for Radical Idealism:

“The libertarian must never allow himself to be trapped into any sort of proposal for ‘positive’ governmental action; in his perspective, the role of government should only be to remove itself from all spheres of society just as rapidly as it can be pressured to do so.”

Unfortunately, the government never removes itself from anything. Though despised by pro-union historians, the Taft-Hartley Act of 1947 didn’t achieve much of anything except allowing states to pass RTW laws. Indeed, nearly every facet of the anti-business Wagner Act remained the same:

  • Employers were mandated to bargain “in good faith” with unions, which was quite vague and can be determined arbitrarily by none other than the National Labor Relations Board.
  • Owners were barred from influencing employees’ decisions to unionize or not.
  • Businesses were required to give total strangers access to the company property to persuade employees to unionize.

Eminent libertarian commentator Tom Woods writes about one luxury afforded to this special interest that no other group in the country has:

“The Act made labor unions immune to claims of vicarious responsibility. In plain English, that means that labor unions are not legally responsible for any violence their members might commit, even if union officials themselves order the violence.”

While unions have taken a mile, RTW at least gives everyone else an inch.

The central premise of libertarianism is the non-aggression principle, or NAP. Right-to-work prevents unions from using muscle to shake down workers, money that goes mostly to organizing for left-leaning political candidates. That should be a cause of celebration, not scorn, even if it comes from the pen of politicians.

The State of the Union

Let’s be candid: Labor unions have too much power, thanks to government-sanctioned and state-supported monopoly supremacy. This has distorted markets, artificially raised prices, affected the quality of products, and hurt employment opportunities. Ultimately, they do more harm than good, though they think they are an essential service for the common man.

In today’s world, unions are superfluous and relics of a bygone era. They claim to have helped build the middle class, but they were routinely late to the party. Whether it was introducing the weekend or implementing safety standards, businesses were already doing this. They knew that an unsafe workplace derailed productivity because injuries from dangerous equipment or hazardous procedures shut down operations for several hours, hurt its corporate reputation, and dissuaded labor from applying for jobs.

Surely, these entities are lifting wages for the country, right? With sufficient labor and competition in the marketplace, companies are not stiffing their employees and paying them the minimum wage to pad their bottom lines as if this were a Charles Dickens novel. In fact, even with membership sitting near historic lows, more than 95% of the national workforce earns more than the minimum wage, hourly wages are climbing every month, and the average salary in America is $60,000.

Americans have realized that this institution hinders their job growth and threatens their livelihood. So, if there were national unanimity on the efficacy and rectitude of unions, there would never be a need to fight RTW pushes. Every man and woman would voluntarily and excitedly join one; again, RTW does not prevent you from doing so, only eliminates the use of force on the condition of employment.

Libertarians opposed to RTW are neither apologists nor statists. They want to advance the cause of free markets, maximize freedom, and restrain government. But RTW favors free exchange over coercion, supports fewer regulations over more, and facilitates reforms over the status quo. Why should only unions use the club of the state to increase their power over workers? Why can’t workers be left alone to clock in their eight hours?

The Angry Silence

Unions only know two things: aggression and censorship. In 1960, Sir Richard Attenborough starred in the incredible film The Angry Silence, about a lone worker who refuses to participate in a wildcat strike. The members terrorize Attenborough and his family because he wants to be left alone to earn a living. The film was subsequently banned in Wales because the cinema chains owned by the miners’ unions refused to screen the film. This sums up what unions are today.


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