Protect Individual Rights, not the “Right to Work”

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In February, Indiana became the twenty-third state, and the first in the “Rust Belt,” to enact a “right to work” law. The Indiana law states:

A person may not require an individual to:

(1) become or remain a member of a labor organization;
(2) pay dues, fees, assessments, or other charges of any kind…
as a condition of employment or continuation of employment.

While conservatives hail “right to work” laws as a victory for workers, such laws are an attack on the rights of employers. While conservatives hail “right to work” laws as a means to curtail the power and influence of labor unions, those laws are founded on the very same premises as the laws that have given unions so much power and influence.

For example, the Clayton Act in 1914 exempted labor unions from anti-trust laws, which would have otherwise made unions illegal. In 1932, the Norris-LaGuardia Act gave unions further protections, such as prohibiting “yellow-dog contracts.” (A “yellow-dog contract” is an employment contract in which a worker promises not to join a Labor Union or promises to resign from a union if he or she is already a member.) The National Labor Relations Act of 1935 made it illegal for employers “to refuse to bargain collectively with the representatives of his employees.” These laws, and others like them, grant increasing power to union leaders, compel employers to negotiate with those leaders, and effectively prevent employees from contracting their labor as they judge best. “Right to work” laws are intended to counter the laws giving such power to unions.

Where the pro-union legislation forces the employer to negotiate with union leaders, regardless of his own judgment, “right to work” laws prohibit the employer from making union membership a condition of employment, regardless of his own judgment. In both instances, the law prohibits the employer from acting on his own independent judgment.

Morally, a business owner has a right to set whatever terms of employment he desires, including union membership, and employees have an equal right to accept or reject those terms. These are choices that should be left to each individual. Each individual has a right to act on his own judgment, so long as he respects the mutual rights of others.

Unions per se are not the problem. The problem is unions backed with the coercive power of government. Current labor legislation forces businesses to “negotiate” with the unions or be prosecuted for violating labor laws. This is akin to “negotiations” between a banker and a robber—one side can issue ultimatums punctuated with “or else.” And “or else” means the threat of force. America’s labor laws effectively prohibit business owners with unionized labor from operating as they judge best. Right to work laws are based on the same premise.

The power granted to unions by government intervention in the employer/employee relationship cannot be solved by more government intervention in the employer/employee relationship. The solution is to repeal all laws that interfere in the voluntary and consensual relationships between employers and employees.

If employees choose to bargain collectively, that is their right as individuals. Simultaneously, the employer has a right to refuse to bargain with a union or any other group of employees. Employees have a right to act on their own judgment. So do employers. Neither party can morally use government coercion to make the other act differently than he thinks is best. Government has no prerogative in the relationship between employer and employee, other than enforcing the contracts that are freely entered.

So what would happen if unions were stripped of the power granted to them by government? Wouldn’t employers take advantage of their workers? While this is a myth believed by many, history demonstrates otherwise.

In 1914, Henry Ford voluntarily raised the wages of his employees to the rate of five dollars per day—nearly doubling the prevailing wage. At the same time, he cut the work day from nine hours to eight hours. In 1914, there was no union nor were there laws governing the relationship between Ford and his employees. Ford was not motivated by altruism, but by what he called “enlightened self-interest.” What was the result? Years later, he explained what occurred after he raised wages and reduced the work day:

In 1914, when the first plan went into effect, we had 14,000 employees and it had been necessary to hire at the rate of about 53,000 a year in order to keep a constant force of 14,000. In 1915 we had to hire only 6,508 men and the majority of these new men were taken on because of the growth of the business.

Ford recognized that by paying employees a wage that was considerably higher than his competitors, he was able to attract better workers and dramatically reduce turnover. He created a win-win, as do all rational employers.

Similarly, George Westinghouse also provided superior working conditions for his employees:

Working conditions at the Westinghouse Air Brake Company (WA&B) were more than proficient and the company had many new developments in effect for its employees. In 1869 it was one of the first companies to institute a 9-hour work day and a 55-hour work week. [A ten-hour work day and six-day work week was common in most industries as late as 1900.] WA&B also got the reputation for being the first industry in America to adopt half holidays on Saturday afternoons. A series of welfare options were also instituted to better the working and living conditions of its employees.

As with Henry Ford, Westinghouse recognized that better conditions for his employees resulted in greater productivity, and therefore, improved profits.

Industrialists are not the only businessmen to recognize the benefits of “enlightened self-interest.” In 1842, a French house painter—Edme Jean LeClaire—instituted a profit-sharing program for his employees. Recognized as the “father” of modern profit sharing, LeClaire “was determined to challenge the assumption that profit sharing would not increase efficiency and productivity enough to justify the payments made. He was proved right. His business prospered.”

Will every business owner recognize these truths? Will every business owner pay his employees above-market wages and offer greater benefits than competitors? Obviously not. But when employees are free to contract their labor, they can seek better jobs. A rational business owner will seek the best and brightest employees he can find. Such employees are the means by which he will achieve greater profits. When the market is free of government intervention, a less rational business owner will suffer economically.

Both leftists and conservatives would have us believe that government must protect the rights of workers. But there is no such thing as “worker’s rights.” There are only individual rights, and they apply to all individuals, employers and employees alike.

Free the Employers

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Recent budget crises in Wisconsin, Indiana, and other states have unleashed a renewed debate over the power of unions and “right to work” laws. Unfortunately, both sides of the debate are guilty of numerous equivocations, misrepresentations, and errors. And, at the end of the day, both advocate the use of government coercion to intervene in the employer/employee relationship.

Unions have attacked the “right to work” movement as an assault on collective bargaining rights, correctly arguing that such a law “brings government interference to private enterprise…. In effect, government limits the right of employers to set the terms and conditions of employment by telling companies and their workers what they can and can’t bargain over.” What the unions don’t tell us is, an employer is guilty of “unfair labor practices” if he refuses “to bargain collectively with the representatives of his employees.” Federal legislation prohibits employers and employees from individually negotiating terms of employment if the employee is represented by a union, thereby “telling companies and their workers what they can and can’t bargain over.” In response to this interference, the proponents of “right to work” laws propose further intervention.

For their part, the advocates of “right to work” state that a “Right to Work law guarantees that no person can be compelled, as a condition of employment, to join or not to join, nor to pay dues to a labor union.” While this is true, it is also disingenuous. “To be compelled” means to act under force or the threat of force. It means that one must act contrary to his own judgment, hence the need for compulsion. As an example, if you go into the grocery store, you can buy steak or chicken. The choice is yours and you can act as you judge best. However, if the butcher threatens to beat you up if you buy chicken, the threat of force prevents you from acting on your own judgment. You are compelled to act contrary to your judgment, unless you want to receive a beating.

Every employer establishes conditions of employment, such as education, skills, experience, work hours, performance standards, and more. An employer should be free to establish any conditions he chooses, including those that are irrational and irrelevant to the job, such as hair color, height, or favorite football team. If an employee finds those conditions unacceptable, he is free to find another job. Just as the employer is free to act on his judgment—to establish conditions of employment—the employee is equally free to accept or reject those conditions.

If an employer believes that unionized employees are beneficial to his business, and he wants to make union membership a condition of employment, he should be free to act on his judgment. At the same time, if he decides that he does not want to negotiate with union leaders, he should also be free to do so. In other words, government should not be involved in the employee/employer relationship, except to enforce contracts that are freely entered.

Right to work laws prohibit employers from acting on their judgment. For example, the website for the Attorney General of Texas states that employees “may not be required to join or pay dues to a union as a condition of employment.” Employers who act on their own judgment in defiance of the dictates of the state are subject to prosecution.

The solution to the power of labor unions is not more controls on employers. The solution is to repeal legislation that forces employers to negotiate with union leaders. The solution is for government to recognize and protect the rights of employees and employers to freely negotiate the terms of employment.

Unions vs. “right-to-work”

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A number of conservatives, such as  Senator Rand Paul, have been promoting “right-to-work” legislation in response to the growing power of labor unions. On the surface, such legislation might appear to be consistent with free market principles. But is it?

Wikipedia says that

Right-to-work laws are statutes enforced in twenty-two U.S. states, mostly in the southern or western U.S., allowed under provisions of the Taft-Hartley Act, which prohibit agreements between labor unions and employers that make membership, payment of union dues, or fees a condition of employment, either before or after hiring, which would require the workplace to be a closed shop.

Where pro-union legislation, such as the National Labor Relations Act, force employers to negotiate with labor union leaders, right-to-work legislation prohibits employers from making union membership a condition of employment. In both instances, employers are prohibited from acting on their own judgment.

There is no such thing as a right to work. There is only the right of an employer to offer a job and the right of an employee to accept that offer. Morally, each should be free to act on his own judgment. The employer should be free to stipulate whatever conditions of employment he desires, and the employee should also be free to accept those he finds acceptable and reject those he does not.

If an employer believes that dealing with a labor union is beneficial to his business, he should be free to make union membership a condition of employment. Similarly, if he does not want to deal with labor union leaders, he should be free to refuse to do so. No matter his decision, if he is unable to find the workers that his business needs, he will either change his decision or go out of business.

The solution to the political power of labor unions is not further restrictions on the freedom of business owners. The solution is to get government completely out of the employer/employee relationship. The solution is to repeal all laws that force employers to act contrary to their own judgment.