Front Page Titles (by Subject) HIRSCHEL KASPER, What's Wrong With Right-to-Work Laws - New Individualist Review
The Online Library of Liberty
A project of Liberty Fund, Inc.
Search this Title:
HIRSCHEL KASPER, What’s Wrong With Right-to-Work Laws - Ralph Raico, New Individualist Review 
New Individualist Review, editor-in-chief Ralph Raico, introduction by Milton Friedman (Indianapolis: Liberty Fund, 1981).
About Liberty Fund:
Liberty Fund, Inc. is a private, educational foundation established to encourage the study of the ideal of a society of free and responsible individuals.
The copyright to this publication is held by Liberty Fund, Inc. The New Individualist Review is prohibited for use in any publication, journal, or periodical without written consent of J. M. Cobb, J. M. S. Powell, or David Levy.
Fair use statement:
This material is put online to further the educational goals of Liberty Fund, Inc. Unless otherwise stated in the Copyright Information section above, this material may be used freely for educational and academic purposes. It may not be used in any way for profit.
What’s Wrong With Right-to-Work Laws
ALTHOUGH THERE IS NO necessary reason why public policy proposals should be consistent with one’s political philosophy, it can be embarrasing for classical liberals to say one thing and lobby for another. The recent debate on the issue of whether to maintain Federal legislation to enable states to pass Right-to-work laws presents just such a striking anomaly. A correct reading of classical liberal philosophy requires disapproval of legislation, Federal or state, which forbids private parties to engage in a mutually beneficial exchange, unless that private contract eliminates liberty or is an element of increased coercion. Given our existing economy. Right-to-work laws should be seen as antithetical to those who prefer more liberty and less governmental coercion.
Since this line of reasoning may not be clear, a brief discussion of the background of Right-to-work legislation may be useful. When there is a federal system of government, legislation on the same matter may arise from both the central Congress and the state legislatures. The Supreme Court has decided that national legislation preempts state legislation in labor-management relations, as well as in many other areas. In this light, Congress wrote into the 1947 Taft-Hartley Act a provision, Section 14(b), which said specifically that the Act should not
. . .be construed as authorizing the execution or application of agreements requiring membership in a labor organization as a condition of employment in any State or Territory in which such execution or application is prohibited by State or Territorial law.
The effect of such Congressional legislation is to allow states to prohibit union-management contracts which require union membership as a condition of employment. About two-fifths of the states, mostly in the South and West, have taken advantage of Section 14(b) of the Taft-Hartly Act and passed restrictive legislation to outlaw “union shop” agreements. The state laws, referred to as Right-to-work laws, thus derive from the Congressional legislation; and if Congress had repealed Section 14(b), there is no doubt that the state legislation would have been invalidated.
It is not immediately apparent why a classical liberal should favor legislation which forbids unions and firms from signing a contract which requires union membership as a condition of employment. Certainly, there would be opposition to legislation which prohibited contracts from including provisions on hours, grievance procedures, and working conditions. Union security provisions requiring workers to join unions and to pay union dues are as much a legitimate condition of employment as requirements that workers arrive at work on time and perform their jobs satisfactorily. All of these conditions of employment are coercive of the employees who would prefer to work under other arrangements; but there is no especial diminution of liberty, certainly not in modern-day America. The right to work for a particular firm under an employee’s own conditions has not been recognized, and is likely to remain secondary to the right of a firm and a union to establish mutually satisfactory rules for employment.
TO A CLASSICAL LIBERAL, the denial of a union shop, where it is desired both by labor and by management, is a needless and arbitrary reduction in liberty. All workers in each of the nineteen states with Right-to-work laws are denied by statute the opportunity of working in a union shop. Just as an open, competitive society will give birth to firms which can take advantage of the propensity of women to prefer to work from 10:00 A.M. to 3:00 P.M., so it will give birth to firms which hire workers who prefer not to join unions, for whatever reason. This is more than an academic point, since total union membership in the United States is less than one-fourth of the total labor force, and less than one-half of the number of “potential” or “eligible” union members. The open society is far more protective of the liberty of workers to work under conditions which they prefer than a society which prohibits certain working conditions.
In addition, it is not obvious that union shop provisions should be prohibited in order to improve labor-management relations. On the contrary, there is a strong presumption for allowing the parties to the bargain the widest latitude in working out for themselves those conditions of employment which improve the labor-management relations climate. Bargaining practice suggests that union security provisions are obtained by the union only at the cost of foregoing some other demand. Reportedly, management often “sells” a union shop provision for a five-cent per hour wage increase. Since there is so little known about the impact of union security provisions on labor-management relations, there is every reason to suppose that the regulation of union security ought to be left to the parties involved.
Although all unions might prefer stronger union security provisions, companies are of mixed opinion. Some firms believe that the climate of labor-management relations is improved when unions are assured of members without continuing incidents of bickering; others believe just the opposite. In one case, the labor agreement of a large farm implement manufacturer includes the text of a union security provision which it would want but cannot have because such is not “legally possible under Iowa and Federal laws” (according to the agreement). Thus, the existence of a Right-to-work law interferes with the right of private parties to sign agreements and to commit private property in accordance with their preferences. The effect is to coerce the parties to the bargain and, in our society, to increase the liberty of none.
Let me emphasize that the argument here is not one of whether union security provisions are good or bad; the argument is whether there should be legislation which prohibits them.
IT IS DIFFICULT TO shake the suspicion that many people favor Right-to-work laws because of the presumption that such legislation will weaken the political and economic power of unions. Regardless of whether this presumption is correct, and most of the evidence is in the other direction, this kind of legislation is a most obtuse way of accomplishing the goal. If the opposition to unions is to be based on liberal tenets, it should be focused on the nature of unions and collective bargaining per se, and not on those kinds of government interference which on any other grounds would be inherently indefensible.
Although Right-to-work laws interfere with the right of private contract and must be coercive, if they are effective, it does not follow that repeal of such legislation is neutral with respect to private property. The concern here is that some workers, currently employed in Right-to-work states, who would prefer jobs where union membership is not a condition of employment, would suffer a loss of property if their unions obtained union shop contracts. These workers have accumulated rights in the form of pensions, insurance, and, most important, seniority, which they would lose should they have to take another job to avoid union membership. One compromise which would increase freedom, preserve property rights, and minimize coercion might be the repeal of all Right-to-work laws—i.e., repeal of Section 14(b)—but with the provision that all currently employed workers who are not now members of a labor union would not be compelled to join a union as a condition of employment. All new employees in firms which have union shops would be required to join the union as a condition of employment. Such a compromise would ease the transition for workers and unions in states with Right-to-work laws, since job opportunities in those states are increasing at a faster rate than in the economy as a whole.
[* ] Hirschel Kasper is Assistant Professor of Economics at Oberlin College. He received his Ph.D. from the University of Minnesota in 1963, and has published several articles on labor in scholarly journals.