There’s been a bit of discussion in one of our recent comment threads about so-called “right-to-work” laws (RTW). This is a topic we’ve discussed before here. And it’s one about which I still haven’t entirely made up my mind. It’s sometimes difficult to know what specific policies libertarian principles demand when those principles have been and continue to be violated on a regular basis. Libertarianism demands freedom of contract for all, not just for some. But what if freedom of contract for all isn’t a live option on the policy table?
In the most recent issue of The Freeman, our very own Gary Chartier weighs in on the issue with his essay “What’s Wrong with Right-to-Work.” Gary begins by noting, correctly, that RTW violates freedom of contract by preventing employers from entering into an with a union to form a “union shop.”
That might seem to settle the issue from a libertarian perspective, but defenders of RTW respond by pointing out that prior government policies like the National Labor Relations Act have already violated freedom of contract by requiring employers to bargain with unions that have the support of the majority of workers. So government has already thrown out freedom of contract in a way that benefits unions. RTW simply balances things out.
But according to Chartier, this story grossly misrepresents the actual history and political economy of the NLRA, which was actually supported by business interests:
Big businesses that supported the emergence of modern labor law liked the fact that it had the potential to keep unions tame and manageable, ensuring that they would operate within a predefined legal framework in order to enjoy legal privileges. (This is not to say that everything worked out exactly as the corporate elite would have liked.) It should be no surprise, then, that viewed as a package, existing labor law limits workers’ options. For instance, since bargaining is required only when a union enjoys majority support, a union that represents a significant fraction of employees—but not a majority—will tend to be treated as irrelevant.
To the extent that right-to-work laws might seem to make sense as mechanisms for dealing with union abuses, the solution is to eliminate the whole body of modern labor legislation. Unions have shown they don’t need it, even in the unfreed market we have today. And in a genuinely freed market, workers would find it significantly easier than they do at present to work for themselves, to say no to abusive work environments, and so to bargain effectively for appealing wages and working conditions and opportunities to direct their workplaces. They certainly wouldn’t need the NLRA.
Fair enough. But this isn’t much help if the only question on the ballot is: RTW, yes or no? The elimination of all labor laws and special privileges for both sides is a terrific ideal to aim at. But ideal theory is sometimes little help for solving problems in our very non-ideal world.