Right-To-Work Laws Aren’t Perfect, But They’re Better Than The Likely Alternative

by Ivan Osorio on December 12, 2012 · 9 comments

in Economy, Employment, Labor

On more than one occasion, I’ve heard some libertarians object to right-to-work laws on the grounds that they undermine freedom of contract by barring employers from negotiating closed shop agreements with unions if they so choose. At Reason‘s Hit & Run blog, J.D. Tuccille repeats this argument. Tuccille says he opposes Michigan’s new right-to-work law because it “bans closed shops in which union membership is a condition of employment.”

Libertarians generally oppose banning contractual agreements into which parties voluntarily enter, so Tuccille’s objection seems reasonable — but only because it ignores the alternative. Tuccille quotes Gary Chartier of La Sierra University, who rhetorically asks:

If employers choose to conclude union-shop contracts with unions, what gives the Indiana legislature the right to interfere?

Because there is no jurisdiction anywhere in the United States where there is no such interference at all. Simply replace “union shop” with “open shop,” and the one-sidedness of Chartier’s query — and Tuccille’s position — becomes clear. Why should the government forbid an employer from negotiating a voluntary membership agreement with a union?

Chartier’s and Tuccille’s argument makes sense in a political vacuum, but not in the reality we live in. 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 Yes, making closed shops optional for employers would be a much better option, but until the NLRA is repealed, right-to-work laws remain the most viable palliative to compulsory unionism.

For more on labor, see CEI’s labor policy blog, WorkplaceChoice.org.

TD December 13, 2012 at 10:47 am

I’m on your side in this argument, but just an FYI: Closed shops are not mandated by the NLRA. Michigan already has open shops as we speak. (Detroit’s famous newspaper strike in the ’90s eventually led to one there, for example.)

RTW simply means EVERYTHING has to become an open shop.

Ivan Osorio December 13, 2012 at 4:33 pm

Good point. Of course, open shops are anathema to unions, which are wont to do everything in their power to browbeat employers into signing closed shop agreements.

That raises another problem. By law (as validated under the Enmons decision), unions may engage in strong-arm tactics that would be illegal in any other context, which skews the field in the unions’ favor in negotiations.

Eric Dondero December 13, 2012 at 6:40 pm

Excellent piece Ivan. Permission to re-run this in full with link to CEI at LibertarianRepublican.net?

Thanks old friend for all you do for the cause of liberty.

(If okay to run it please shoot me a quick email at ericdondero@yahoo.com or text me at 979-848-4575.)

Eric Dondero, Publisher
Libertarian Republican

Tibor R. Machan December 14, 2012 at 11:26 am

I recall debating this issue way back in the 1970s and finding the libertarian case very compelling–no one may be permitted to ban freely entered into contracts, including ones between labor unions and companies that hire their members. Whenever the dispute arose, there were always those who argued, “Well, sure, that is the principled position to hold in a free society but ours is hardly that, so the right to work position is acceptable in this mixed economy.” I am no expert on national labor law but I am concerned that such exceptions can become a very bad habit, open the door to all kinds of other exceptions to the principle of freedom of contract.

Salverda December 14, 2012 at 3:58 pm

An individual must have the right to enter into a contract with an employer. Including the right to undercut the union’s negotiated wage, if he so desires. This is the essence of the free market as it applies to the cost of labor. If I am willing to do the job for a dollar an hour less than the union workers are, then there should be no legal way for some gang, that I am not willing to join, to hinder my enterprise.

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