Exploitation, Libertarianism

Thoughts on unions


A while ago (around our disagreements about May Day) I had an exchange with Fernando about labor unions. I’ve been thinking about this again recently, partly as a result of my ongoing work on intermediate groups, partly due to some union issues in Canada, and partly in light of Jessica’s exchange with Chris Bertram about employment relations.

Here are some views which seem to me to hang together, but I don’t lknow whether their joint coherence would survive serious scrutiny. Neither do I know how idiosyncratic I am in holding all of them.

1) Labor unions often harm the well-being of the worst-off by making entry into low-wage work more difficult, raising the bottom rung of the wage ladder above the marginal productivity of outsiders.

2) This provides the unions institutionally with a kind of control over access to labor market rents, which contributes to hierarchical power relations within unions that can be highly problematic.

3) Unions have often contributed to making their firms or their industries uncompetitive; they lack a built-in check that would keep them from killing the goose.  This may be an even worse problem when they are faced with temporarily oligopolistic or monopolistic firms– the big traditional airlines, the Big Three automakers, traditional AT&T— which are themselves prone to become vulnerable overcommitted dinosaurs over time, and which are happy enough to lock in medium-term labor peace with contracts that put the firm one transformative competitor away from disaster.

4) Public sector unions have, under some conditions, a considerable ability to capture both sides of the bargaining table and seriously weaken public sector budget restraint.

5) Unions bureaucratize work relations in ways that can be both unpleasant and counterproductive for all concerned; they create rigidities and inflexibilities that can prevent cooperative improvements.

6) Labor unions form the organizational core of political parties and movements that seek to do more than bargain in the workplace; they’ve been a major force for social-democratic political economic organization.  And the politics they shape is not especially prone to be liberal along cultural, social, or constitutional dimensions.

7) Unions– their leadership, their membership, their supporters– are capable of significant bullying that easily spills into immoral coercion against outsiders, nonmembers, and dissenters; the charge of “scab” is often an accusation of punishable treason against a cause that the accused never signed up for.

And yet:

8. Unions have been and continue to be absolutely indispensable for the mitigation of workplace power imbalances between managers and employees; they provide due process protections, protection against favoritism and nepotism and retaliation and harassment sexual and otherwise, protection against unjust dismissal and against the countless ways that managers can use the threat of dismissal to gain personal advantage.  Now, there’s a sense in which many or most of these abuses are contrary to a firm’s interest.  They amount to managers acting on their own behalf instead of on the firm’s, and so represent a type of corruption.  (Sexual harassment is the clearest case here; the manager demanding sexual services is seeking something that is only for his own benefit, not for the firm’s.  But the same is true when someone is promoted or fired because of a personal relationship– favoritism or retaliation.)  But the principal-agent problems involved in firms trying to manage their own managers to prevent all of these things are serious; it’s easy enough for higher-level managers to think that a mid-level manager is more indispensable than is a low-level worker.  It’s certainly possible to generate these protections without unions; many professionals have them.  But for many non-professional employees, it has only ever been unions that fought for these protections; it has only ever been unions that provided them; and they do not survive well when unions die out.

Note that I did not say, in the above, “these protections are demanded by libertarianism.”   But I also did not say “these protections are prohibited by libertarianism.”  I think the general commitment to human freedom that motivates libertarianism should also motivate concern for these kinds of issues.  (See my previous posts here and here on this kind of claim.)  But I’m not arguing for that here; just collecting my various views.  The empirical claims listed above are also neither demanded nor prohibited by libertarian ideas.

9) Collective wage bargaining on the offer curve within the Edgeworth box between employees and employers is not only legitimate but (at least often) a positive good.  That is, there is bargaining room to maneuver in any given employment setting; there are lower and higher wages that are both compatible with a given efficient level of firm output.  And one doesn’t have to be very committed to anything like diminishing marginal utility or the difference principle to say: if there are rents to be had or surpluses to be gained thanks to the strictly strategic aspects of bargaining– because “equilibrium wage” actually describes a range– then workers ought to have a reasonable chance of winning the negotiation and gaining that surplus.

It might be difficult– might be impossible– to get institutions that would enable collective bargaining within that range and still check against bargaining that pushes outside the range and hurts competitiveness.  I have no idea.  But that range does exist, in many negotiations; many labor markets are (at least locally in time and space) characterized by a small number of firms bargaining with a large number of workers, and that gives the firms strategic power that is unrelated to efficiency; unions can mitigate or counteract that.

10) The fact that workers have so often and in so many places sought to organize, and the fact that firms have so often and in so many places resorted to illiberal restrictions on freedom of association if not outright violence to prevent them from doing so, itself looks like prima facie evidence from the world in unions’ favor.  Whatever one’s complaints against the regime of employment relations created by positive legislation such as the Wagner Act, unionization comes first, before the state action and initially in spite of state action.  When I first started researching freedom of association, I was annoyed that so much of the literature was dominated by the case of unions, since that wasn’t a case I was interested in.  I now think that was the wrong reaction, and that I should take the centrality of unions to fights for freedom of association as indicative.  There is widespread revealed-preference demand for associations of something like this form, and as a libertarian I should pay attention to that, not sweep it under the carpet.

There’s nothing approaching a theory here.  I look at some industries, some sectors, some places and say “there’s too much unionization there; the bad effects are getting crippling.”  But I no longer have the basic hostility to them that many people (including many libertarians?) who hold to positions 1-7 above do, and I look at other industries, sectors, and places and say “there’s too little unionization here,” especially when workers evidently suffer from managerial workplace domination and abuse and lack procedural protections against them.  In the world as it exists (please, no arguments about how free currency competition would get us to macroeconomic full employment and so eliminate bargaining imbalances; maybe you’re right, but I don’t really care) the reality of workplace domination means that some cost in the bureaucratization of the workplace is worth paying.  If I’m right about (8), then as far as I’m concerned that’s a strong reason to support unions and unionization much of the time, even if considerations 1-7 suggest needs to balance against that.

As I said: not yet a theory, just a collection of views. I’m curious how they strike you.  Are they jointly incoherent in a way that I don’t see?  If they’re right, do you join me in thinking that BHL has to adopt a different stance toward unionization from more traditional libertarian views?

Update: one more thought about points 7 and 8.  In my view one of the hardest problems within liberalism– which includes libertarianism– is how to balance concerns about in-group domination and abuse against worries that central states will suppress groups far more than is justified, that they will treat concerns about local domination opportunistically as excuses to constrain or crush counterbalancing associations and organizations, and that even if the constraints they place on groups in the short term do enhance freedom, it will be at the cost of weakening future organizational sources of resistance to state power.  This dilemma recurs all the time: in debates about federalism and how much central state intervention is warranted to protect the liberty of local minorities; in debates about freedom of religion and cultural freedom when women are disadvantaged by group practices; in (a special area of interest for me) disputes about the authority of Indian reservation governments to govern non-tribe members; in disputes about universities’ internal restrictions on speech or association, or their internal procedures for disciplinary cases.  There’s a temptation to look at the person in front of you whose freedom is being violated and respond with a massive restriction on the authority of the group doing the violating.  And sometimes that’s warranted.  But, even when it is,  you need to pay attention to later dynamic effects of the change, and whether they leave people even more vulnerable to future violations of freedom.

Note that this can apply both to the problem of unions’ treatment of dissenters, and to the problem of firms’ treatment of workers. But in my view it’s a more important corrective to worries about 7 than to worries about 8– because collective bargaining and union protections restricting the internal actions of a firm are not the same as direct state regulation of the internal actions of a firm.  I worry about 7 a lot; the abuse of the never-signed-up-for-this supposed scab offends me, and I think should be called out for what it is.  But I also worry a lot about using it as an excuse for state restriction of union activity, for the same reasons I worry about such excuses in the kinds of cases listed in the previous paragraph.

  • I’m not sure holding all of these is idiosyncratic at all; I basically hold all of these too. To me, I suppose it comes down to whether the unions in question are compulsory or voluntary (I support the latter and abhor the former). I was a public school teacher for some time, lucky enough to be a member of a VOLUNTARY teachers union in a state where membership in the union was not mandatory for public school teachers – and i joined. When the union is voluntary, they must serve members or risk losing support. When unions are compulsory, not only is freedom of association denied (anyone who wishes to enter a particular industry MUST join and pay toward the union), but unions are much less likely to feel the need to represent members (who cannot leave except to leave that industry altogether). 

    And as a libertarian, I still take very seriously the power imbalances between management and workers that unions are designed to address. But making sure the union is and remains voluntary, I think, keeps that union in check a bit by giving workers the freedom to evaluate and re-evaluate whether the dues paid are worth the benefits received from membership. 

    • crabshack

      Yeah, I basically hold all of these opinions as well, although perhaps with differing levels of emphasis. A much shorter description of my attitude toward unions would be: conflicted.

  • billwald

    1. As the standard of living rises in civilized countries, the birth rate falls.   

    2. Labor is becoming an international commodity. With unrestricted free trade manufacturing jobs will go to the countries with the lowest net labor costs. 

    3. Without labor unions the race to the top of the food chain will become a race to the bottom.

    4. Without generational wealth redistribution (or WW3) the top 1% will end up owning 90% of everything worth owning. The rest of us will be “free” to starve.

    • Anon.

      Your 3rd point is not bad, and painting it as such is, I think, nothing but racist. There is nothing wrong with global labor cost equalization. Uneducated western workers are ridiculously overpaid profiting from the misery of those in developing countries by keeping them out.

      • billwald

        True, but the only alternative seems to be everyone but the 1% living in misery. Or WW3.  Kill off 5 billion people and the remaining population can live well. Say a plague that doesn’t destroy infrastructure.

        • Scott H.

          the “only alternative”?   Everyone but the 1% lives in misery?   Please.
          Why don’t you kill off everyone but yourself and see how well you live on the wealth of the world.

          • billwald

            We still have a ways to go until the 1% owns 90% of everything worth owning.  I’m retired and living  just fine.

            Don’t put words into my mouth. There will always be enough serfs to serve the rich. After all, Jesus promised us that the world would never run out of poor people.

    • mechris3

      1 and 4 seem to be contradictory.

    • chuckrobertpearson .

      Wealth consolidation is the result of government intervention. If you look at the wealthiest firms, they are firms that have received a significant amount of assistance from the state. By bringing an end to this, other firms will be able to emerge and compete with the 1%, reducing their control over the overall wealth.Wealth consolidation is only possible at the barrel of a gun.

  • BeyondWittgenstein

    Don’t confuse freedom of association with freedom to contract. 

    • tuttifruttisoul

      Of course, if one upholds both as valid, then exercising the two of them in tandem pretty clearly produces a freedom to form collective bargaining units (and also business partnerships, corporations etc.)

  • Steven Flaeck

    Of course, because unionizers are violating their employment contract, violence is prima facie an option. The union itself, as a criminal conspiracy, should be dealt with harshly. 😉

  • I take issues with points 1 through 5 because in a freer society they would decline as issues or entirely disappear.

    As you noted, unions developed in spite of government action from banning them to beating them.  Since then, they have become entangled with government and government regulation and that is usually when issues 1 through 5 show up.  This is a topic near and dear to me because it is what flipped me from (what this site calls) “high liberal” to “bleeding heart libertarian”.  Even in the case of unions, it is the government that is the source of the problem for workers and non-workers, not the union.

    At least in the United States, government restricts both what unions can demand and what businesses can do to unions.  Government requires 50% + 1 workers before business can recognize and negotiate with a union.  A government must certify a union.  Government prevents other unions from trying to siphen off workers in an already unionized shop.  This prevents competing unions in a workplace – competition that prevents your issue #1, 2, and 5  from happening.  Unions were doing just fine without these regulations(despite beatings).  The car companies and other big corporations recognized unions when their workers didn’t show up and they had to shut down their operations.

    Now there is a possibility that a union could force a business to agree to a closed-shop.  Freedom of contract would make it immoral to prevent two parties from agreeing to this.  But it still wouldn’t cause the traditional problems with unions because lower paid workers could try and get into the competitors.  Those competitors would offer lower prices and force the closed shop to lower wages to meet prices(if the profit margin has already been squeezed).  Even if there is, as you say, a temporary monopoly on every firm, the keyword is temporary.  Competitors could spring up, or foreign producers would undersell that industry.  The point is, it would require a single union(or multiple union) to coordinate and dominate an entire world wide industry for this to become a permanent problem.  In that case, you would have to bring anti-trust laws to unions.(As well as they should if all other regulations on unions were lifted)

    The argument against #4 could be used against any organized special interest.  Whatever solution you come up with against special interests lobbying the government I’m willing to hear and then apply it to all of them, not just unions.

    Your argument against #6 could be used against organized religion as well as a large corporation.  Besides, with competitive unions the organizations wouldn’t, hopefully, get large enough to distort democracy anymore than existing special interests.

    As for your issue #7, again, I think competition between unions would mitigate a lot of this.  As for social pressure and “scab” insults, that’s not for the government to decide. 

    I think if unions left to themselves would eventually morph into something quite unrecognizable today.  And that would be a good thing!  The problem is that the NLRB and other so-called “labor” laws have frozen union organizations in time.  With lifted regulation who knows what might happen.  Maybe unions become a sort of hybrid staffing firm.  Maybe they become low-cost lawyers for advice, etc…  The sky is the limit.

    The goal, I believe, is, as with other things, competition.  With competition workers will be able to decide whether they need the union or not.  If the answer is “no” the unions will morph into something workers need or they will whither.  Right now, in most cases, the only choice is union or no-union.  The choice needs to be no union or one of the 10 unions asking for my membership.  Admittedly, there will be abuses and heart-breaking stories.  But, so there are with organized religion, family, and business.  And yet, we allow these to be free.  So it should with unions.

    • billwald

      Closed shops were the norm for several hundred years – back when finishing a guild apprenticeship was required for guild membership – see “Giants Of The Earth,” a great story.

      •  I can’t say I am extremely well versed on guilds during the middle ages.  However, I do understand that the guilds would purposely raise prices and act like a monopolist.  But was this not often done with the assistance of the ruling feudal lords?  

        Also, I think we’ll find it difficult to compare modern capitalism to medieval feudalism.  But if we were to make a comparison, would the self-employed, conspiring guild members be better described as the first union or the first rent-seeking capitalists?

      • sigaba

        Guilds are very different institutions from modern industrial unions.  Guildsmen were generally sole proprietors or formed partnerships, as opposed to being employees; guilds controlled wages primarily by restricting labor supply; guilds were also heavily involved in education and conferring professional accreditation.  A state Bar Association is an example of a modern guild, as opposed to a UAW or IATSE local.

        • billwald

          Would you feel safer working under OSHA or an IAM (aircraft machinists) contract? The last strike at Boeing was over excess overtime hours, not more money.

          • sigaba

            I don’t know, our last contract negotiation with AMPTP was over health care for dependents 🙂

  • It was all going well until you got to number 8. Here are a few counter comments.

    In general, power imbalance between employer and employee depends on the state of the market. In a boom, demand for people outstrips supply and employees can, and do, negotiate higher pay and better conditions, often by threatening to leave for another employer (I have done it myself – there can be few people who haven’t). There is no fixed power asymmetry.

    Unions are instruments of favouratiasm and nepotism. In a number of industries, it has been difficult or impossible to get a job unless you join the union and difficult or impossible to join the union unless you have a family member already in it. We have had that problem in the docks and in refuse collection in the UK, to mention just two.  Even where there isn’t that problem, the union favours those of its members who toe the line and may actively discriminate against those who are different, especially those who seek advancement through ability rather than through time-serving.

    Much of what unions do is intended to get their members an easy life, rather than better pay, and thus generates inefficiency which depresses the pay of the union members. Even when union members do get higher pay, it is largely at the expense of other workers.

    Union leaders are inveterate liars. They are known to be so even by their members. Although most members keep quiet about it, many make fun of the leaders behind their backs because of the bullshit they talk (though perhaps only in the company of other union members). Unions generate corruption of character.

    The fact that many criminals have sought to organise and that agencies responsible for enforcing the law (when they are doing their job) resort to ‘illiberal’ restrictions on such organisation is not prima facie evidence on favour of the mafia (compare the first sentence of your number 10).

    • good_in_theory

      “It was all going well until you got to the point where you started disagreeing with my priors.”

  • 8) “Life is unfair.” Whine, whine, whine. If managers don’t screw workers (literally and figuratively) union bosses will (and do). Take your pick.

    9) Unions can push firms off the “offer curve” because they wield all-or-nothing control over the labor supply when (a) the state grants them monopoly power or (b) they wield it by intimidation and force (against “scabs” and firms). Firms, are at a disadvantage because they are locked into a location, at least for a longer period than workers. By the same token, firms are less able to make all-or-nothing offers to workers. Cue the violin music for one-company towns where, say, mining is the only industry and there is only one mine. But where would those miners be had it not been for the arrival of an entrepreneur who risked capital to develop a mine? If they chose not to leave for greener pastures, whose fault is that?

    10) “Freedom of association” is not the issue when unions organize an all-or-nothing labor pool, with the backing of the state and/or through the use of intimidation and force.

    •  Fritz,  everything you mentioned is a problem because of labor-state entanglement.  Once you untangle that, “Freedom of association” does become important.  Solving the problem of labor-state entanglement by banning unions would be like solving the problem of business-state monopoly by just banning all business.

    • sigaba

      It’s important to note that a union enforces its monopoly power by entering into a contract with the employer, wherein the employer agrees to not hire non-union employees — this is why right-to-work laws are effective.  Actions the unions take to extract these terms can include boycotts, awareness campaigns, work-to-rule actions, slowdowns and plain old strikes, which are, after all, just labor boycotts. 

      The absolutely ridiculous thing about this is that under Taft-Hartley secondary actions are illegal, meaning it’s basically impossible for a community of interest bigger than a single workplace to ever take concerted action to change anything.  Lech Walesa’s Solidarity movement would probably be illegal in the US under Taft-Hartley.

      Everything everybody on this page claims to know about unions, they seem to have gotten from season three of “The Wire.”  The violence that was a feature of labor relations in the pre-war period had as much to do with corporations obtaining state-sanctioned and often state-employed strike breakers as anything else, the unionizers armed up, and violence brought more violence. Organized crime is always best understood as a quasi-state power that provides basic services and protections to people that cannot obtain it from, or suffer depredations at the hand of, the de jure government.  This is why criminal gangs feature heavily in immigrant and minority communities, social outcasts (such as homosexuals) and political dissidents.

  • Josh

    Missed the way unions can harm the best workers (along with te employer) by elevating seniority and conformance over productivity and enterprise. 

    It is clear that unions are NOT ‘absolutely indispensible’ to mitigate power imbalances between employers and employees.  Under some circumstances, surely they are, but under most circumstances, they are not.  Witness the broad range of non-unionized employees who recognize being forced to join a union would be worse for them not better. 

    Rather, however, unions are a powerful force for mitigating power imbalances between the most qualified and ambitious employees and those who are least qualified and least ambitious.  In this ‘rebalancing’, the employer is harmed, but he/she is not the only victim. 

    If unions were truly voluntary, we would expect to see their more perverse outcomes reined in.  But the first thing a forming union (which does not require concensus of workers to be unionized) negotiated is a closed shop policy.  Of course this maximizes their power over an employer (especially when attempts to guard against capricious and destructive job actions may be illegal), but most of all it maximizes their power over current and prospective employees.

    It is appropriate for libertarians to support the right to organize, but also to oppose the power of unions to impose membership on all employees.  ‘Right to work’ is not only code for union-bashing, but reflects real impediments imposed on society by all but the most noble and well-aligned unions. 

    One final reflection: some of the imbalances in power between employee and employer are extremely appropriate.  But those which are quite inappropriate (e.g. sexual harrassment!) can be just as effectively regulated and prosecuted without unions as with them.

    •  “BIt is appropriate for libertarians to support the right to organize, but
      also to oppose the power of unions to impose membership on all
      But To limit that (using the State), would require encroaching on the right to contract.  The right to contract between the unions and the business.  Also, the right to contract between the employer and employee.

      Some think it is wrong for an employer to require an employee to join a union as a condition of employment.  But my question is, does that mean the state should prevent it?  If libertarians are willing to tolerate making racing, sex, or religion a condition of employment – under the theory that society and poor performance will punish employers who do that – then it would be illogical for libertarians to use the state to prevent employers from require joining a union as a condition of employment just because, “they don’t like unions”.

      • Josh

        It seems disingenuous to suppose that the State interferes with the rights of business and union to contract by eliminating rules that force the business to contract with the union.

        If such rules did not exist, then really the union would be more like an outsourced HR department.  As such, the business could pay for it directly – there would be no need to compel membership (complete with dues) and in fact we’d probably regard requiring dues-paying membership as a condition of employment an abuse of employer power.  Along the lines of ‘if you work here, you have to live here… just pay the landlord, who just happens to have a financial relationship with me your employer’.

        That said the comparison you draw does break down in other ways. The union *represents* the employees, it doesn’t contract independently of them.  It’s just that labor law states that employees must accept the union as their legal representative whether they wish it or not.  The union contracts with the employer not on its own behalf but as the legal representative of the employees.

        Naturally those employees who are least well-served by being represented by the union will tend to be those who would do better for themselves (i.e. can make a case that they are especially valuable to the employer) if allowed to negotiate on their own or as a smaller ‘group of performers’ etc.

        •  I am supposing that government completely gets out of refereeing labor – corporate relationship and see what happens.  If a business is dumb enough to agree to a closed-shop then that is the business’s right to do something stupid.

          “employees who are least well-served by being represented by the union will tend to be those who would do better for themselves”
          I think you lack vision and imagination.  If the government gets out of the way, who knows what will evolve.  That is, as so many libertarians like to claim, the beauty of a truly freed market.  Right now, labor laws has union structure stuck in time and unable to evolve to meet the needs of workers willing to join.

          • Josh

            I’m not sure why you say I lack imagination, but if the thrust of your proposal is to do away with laws giving unions special coercive powers and let them just compete in the marketplace, I won’t argue.

            Just don’t imagine that this proposal is palatable to unions or to politicians who depend on them.

          • Damien S.

             As long as you’re fine with repealing the laws like Taft-Hartley that mess with union organizing and allow the government to interfere in strikes, *at the same time*.

          • sigaba

            Taft-Hartley is the biggest impediment to US employer-employee relations, full stop.  It freezes archaic ideas of what a union is, and any group of people that want to organize have to conform themselves to it in order to have their rights protected.

            It’s not a law that protects unions, nor is it a law that protects liberty; it’a a law that protects General Motors circa 1947.

          • Josh

            Sounds good to me.  A lot of the things Taft-Hartley tries to protect against (like solidarity strikes) are obviously worth protecting against – but if employers are permitted to better protect themselves from such actions, the law would be unecessary.

  • Aeon Skoble

    I’m still thinking about this.  All your points seem sound, yet there are also arguments like this: http://mises.org/daily/1604  How do you respond to people who make this argument?  (Not being querulous, really asking.)

    • G Kochanski

      Only that at my last job, I joined a union voluntarily.   There was no coercion.  (And, indeed, the union was not incredibly useful or powerful.)

  • There is no such thing as “unjust dismissal”, period.

    Collective bargaining among employees is exactly equal to collusion among firms.  A principled stance for liberty demands that we allow both, but they are not good in and of themselves.  Luckily for the rest of us, both arrangements are not self-sustainable, unless…

    Actual union power cannot exist without extra-legal protection.  If a union is just a voluntary organization, fine, but it will have no power and be ineffective.  The unions we know today exist only through the explicit backing of the State.

    • tuttifruttisoul

      Employees at a given firm all necessarily have contracts with the same employer. Rival firms seeking to collude have no a priori contractual relationship with one another. That’s the key difference,

    • Actual union power cannot exist without extra-legal protection.  If a
      union is just a voluntary organization, fine, but it will have no power
      and be ineffective.

      I’m not sure that’s true. After all, unions existed before the state gave them any special privileges. And if they were ineffective and powerless then, why would politicians have felt it necessary to capture them?

      In a collective-bargaining scenario, the employer always has a trump card (fire them all) but that’s often an unrealistic option. Good luck trying to run a business with no employees.

    • Scott H.

       Big like to your first two sentences.  After that, you lost me.  I don’t think I can agree with another thing you said. 

    • sigaba

      “Actual union power cannot exist without extra-legal protection.  If a union is just a voluntary organization, fine, but it will have no power and be ineffective.  The unions we know today exist only through the explicit backing of the State.”

      Nobody here knows how unions work 🙁

      The employer agrees to only hire union members as a condition of their master agreement with the union.  There is no law demanding he do this, only the threat of the strike.  Wether the union can succeed in extracting these terms depends on their ability to credibly threaten, and then mount and sustain a strike/labor boycott/whatever. 

  • Patrick Cahn

    #5 is a tricky one.  In the fields I’ve worked in–non-profit early childhood and residential treatment centers–there’s little to no room for negotiation around salary.  What’s on the table is always benefits and workplace conditions.  Unions tend to come in when management/staff relations are already broken in some fashion.  With the union in place, there tend to be some improvements made to working conditions, but without a skilled administrator and union rep, relations remain stilted at best.  On the other hand, I look at how some centers operate, with schedules that change weekly, minimal vacation and sick time (two sick days a year, at one local center–working with infants!), and think that those workers could benefit from a union watching out for their best interests.

    #8 is very compelling to me.  Workers need access to an advocate, a representative who can stand with them when something bad is going down in the workplace.  The best case would be for that rep to have a good–as in collaborative, respectful, not chummy–relationship with management, so that issues can be addressed and resolved fairly and quickly.I like the idea of unions morphing, evolving.  It would be great to see some sort of union based consultation/mediation force to help improve working conditions for all sorts of workers.  I also think about those workers who don’t have access to unions because of the nature of their employment–part-time, outsourced labor, etc., and how vulnerable to abuses they are.

    • tuttifruttisoul

      The consultation/mediation force does exist. Lots of unions do outreach to advocate for workers that they have no intention of organizing because management’s stance makes organizing an unrealistic goal (look up “OUR Walmart” for one example, it is a largely union-funded effort to get WalMart employees to informally press management on issues on an ad-hoc basis.)

  • “10) The fact that workers have so often and in so many places sought to
    organize, and the fact that firms have so often and in so many places
    resorted to illiberal restrictions on freedom of association if not
    outright violence to prevent them from doing so, itself looks like prima
    facie evidence from the world in unions’ favor.”

    Hmm. Isn’t it equally true to say: “The fact that workers (scabs/strikebreakers) have so often and in so many places sought employment with firms whose workers were on strike, and the fact that unions have so often and in so many places resorted to illiberal restrictions on freedom of association and contract if not outright violence to prevent them from doing so, itself looks like prima facie evidence from the world against unions?”

    Firms have indeed sought illiberal restriction on freedom of association against unions, and in some cases certainly resorted to violence. But unions have also sought illiberal restrictions on freedom of association and contract against individual workers, and in some cases certainly resorted to violence.

    • Isn’t it the role of the state to prevent violence both from firms and from unions, and to punish the individuals and organizations responsible?

      The danger of violent misbehavior by unions was already covered in point #7.  I think the point of #10 is that cries from firms arguing against the need for unionization should be distrusted, given the oppressive behavior those firms are often willing to engage in.

      • Jonathan, while #7 applies for the violence, I do still find it strange the way that #10 is phrased. It’s the only one where “groups of X try to do this throughout the world, and it is resisted, and that’s prima facie evidence in favor.”

        Labor groups throughout the world try to sharply limit immigration, offshoring, free trade, and nearly anything that they think might benefit foreigners. I don’t find the ubiquity to be evidence in favor. I simply don’t find the point to offer much in the way of argument (one way or the other). The other context matters more.

        It’s like arguing that since people everywhere try to ban drugs, and firms engage in illiberal behavior including violence to evade the ban on drugs, that’s prima facie evidence *in favor* of the Drug War.

  • CFV

    Interesting post. Perhaps it could be added that some people believe that, instead of an inverse relationship between working-class associational power and capitalist-class interest; there is a curvilinear reverse J relationship,  which is a positive-sum game.
    Check this out: http://www.ssc.wisc.edu/~wright/Published%20writing/Worker-power.pdf

  • I have a question about (8). You say:

    “8. Unions have been and continue to be absolutely indispensable for the
    mitigation of workplace power imbalances between managers and employees;
    they provide due process protections, protection against favoritism and
    nepotism and retaliation and harassment sexual and otherwise,
    protection against unjust dismissal and against the countless ways that
    managers can use the threat of dismissal to gain personal advantage.”

    Do we have any good empirical evidence that unions in fact promote these workplace protections in general? Does unionization have a significant effect on the creation and enforcement of these protections? (8) sounds plausible enough, but there might be good reasons that things don’t work out this way in practice.

    Here for instance is one influential study that finds that unionization has little effect on wages. Of course, it’s still possible that unionization has other positive effects on workplace protection, even if unionization has few effects on wages. But I’d be curious if there is any good empirical evidence on this.

    • billwald

      Without a union, how can a guy working for Honda in North Carolina ask the guy in Tokyo who sets the wages for a raise?

  • “I think the general commitment to human freedom that motivates libertarianism should also motivate concern for these kinds of issues.”

    Thank you.  That the only possible source of tyranny is by government and that any and all conditions imposed by employers and/or rent takers are 100% voluntary is the most risible conceit of  mainstream libertarianism.

    That government acts only in the interest of employees and those who pay rent is the second most risible conceit.

    As you say, the vast majority of unionization came in violation of laws passed in collusion with employers and property owners.  That employee associations do indeed lead to excesses in some sectors is indisputable, but also irrelevant given that the lack of association also leads to excesses.

    The visceral opposition to unions and consequent toleration of using the law to suppress them because too much can be bad, therefore, is as… um… stupid, creepy, and anti-libertarian as the billionaire media moguls of New York who viscerally oppose all soft drinks because too much of that can be bad.  A-hem!


  • “Now, there’s a sense in which many or most of these abuses are contrary
    to a firm’s interest.  They amount to managers acting on their own
    behalf instead of on the firm’s, and so represent a type of corruption.”

    Major quibble here: you talk about the managers of a firm as if they’re distinct from either the firm itself or its owners.  Given that the majority of businesses are small businesses, the bulk of managers rightfully and not mistakenly consider their business decisions to be decisions about their private property.  And unless you’re going to make the… challenging-to-libertarianism assertion that private property is a good if and only if it’s used virtuously, then in fact you’re overlooking the rather blunt fact that owners of businesses, like the managers they often hire or otherwise engage (cough, nepotism and cronyism, cough), may consider an objective disadvantage to a firm such as massively demoralized or sexually coerced employees or an inadequate relative or crony in the “line of command” to be a subjective perq.

    I’m reminded of a district manager of a fast-food chain in the 1970s, when unemployment was in the 15-20% rage

    I have a couple of friends who do forensic accounting (assessing business value in cases of partnership buyout, divorce, estates, and accounting fraud) and their opinions of most business owners are at or below their opinions of politicians.


    • G Kochanski

      The majority of businesses may be small businesses, but small businesses are small, with few managers and employees.   If you look at where the people are, small businesses are *not* that important.  (See http://archive.sba.gov/advo/research/rs359tot.pdf ).  It’s roughly half and half, and the definition of “small” that the SBA uses extends up to 500 employees, so we’re not talking about truly small businesses where the only managers are owners.

  • Damien S.

    A breath of sanity!

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  • Some small points to add. If collective action by unions raises wage levels and makes it harder to fire people and reduces working hours and wins long vacations for employees etc etc that appears to individual employers as a bad thing (ditto, of course, state action to secure the same). Looked at in the aggregate, however, the effect may be to raise demand for consumer goods (as employees spend and are not fearful of being fired) and increase productivity (since the common stock of labour in the economy is not exhausted through a tragedy of the commons type process).  So high levels of unionization and/or state action (usually brought about through union action) can solve collective action problems for employers.

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  • Silly Wabbit


     Thank you for a well thought-out and reasoned post. It was a pleasure to read and you have successfully distracted me from more pressing concerns.

     I hate to always be “that guy” but some of seemingly empirically-oriented arguments against unions (e.g. unions raise unemployment-as argued in point #1) are not clearly supported by the large body of empirical literature that looks at this. There is evidence before and against, important nuances, and context appears to matter greatly.

    IDK what to make of #2; union administrative structures are largely compromised of elected positions and individuals are almost always elected from within a particular bargaining unit. In other words, the president of XYZ local #999 is probably elected by members. This is not to say that hierarchies can’t develop but unions are perhaps a purer form of democracy than most organization structures. Also, I didn’t think that most libertarians are concerned with hierarchy in the same way that social anarchists are…..

    #4: “Public sector unions have, under some conditions, a considerable ability
    to capture both sides of the bargaining table and seriously weaken
    public sector budget restraint.”
    Union workers do get paid more but the word “seriously” may be something of a stretch here. Depending on the job in question union workers tend to make 16%-27% more than non-union workers in a similar occupation; the gap tends to be smaller for more educated workers so the lower end of the scale is probably more appropriate. 
    In any event, I’m sure someone has done the math and projected the fiscal situation in states if all unionized public sector workers were reduced to non-union wages. I’m not sure that this will have much impact on the budgetary crisis of the states; it’s not as if reducing labor costs by 16% across the board will drastically reduce state budgets. For example, in my home state if all full time state employees took an instant 16% pay-cut it would only reduce the state budget by .01% according to my “back of the envelope” calculations.

    #7 doesn’t seem like a particularly strong argument against unions; the same argument could be made about any organization or any group of people at any time any where in human history. Systematic, organized violence committed by labor unions is nearly non-existent in the U.S. and we shouldn’t imply that there are roving bands of “union thugs” beating up people who cross picket lines (or something along those lines). I’m not sure that’s what you intended but your post could be read that way. I think it might be a better to take a sober look at reality than to conclude that “XYZ organization form has the capacity for violence” because that is an argument that could be applied to any form of human organization.

    All in all I don’t know what all the hubbub is about unions. If you’re anti-union (or a “union skeptic”) the last 30-40 years should be considered cause for celebration; labor union density has fallen dramatically, it’s nearly impossible to organize a new union under NLRB rules, and the labor movement shows no sign of a renaissance. Unions have reformed, become drastically more democratic, and replaced renewed emphasis on organizing and other forms of out reach to non-union workers but union decline continues, and probably will continue, unabated.

    In the interests of fairness I should note that I come from a decidedly working class background and many of the people in my immediate and extended family were union members. My personal involvement with unions began with an ineffective organizing drive at one employer and I was a union member at another employer; both of these were during my undergraduate years and were low-wage generally unpleasant work. Undoubtedly these experiences have also colored my perceptions but I think that some of your comments may not be consistently with empirical reality. I’ve tried to mostly comment on those and not to get into more philosophical or moral terrain.

    Thanks for reading.

  • Heath White

    A word about 3 and 4. 


    Firms generate wealth, while unions are a mechanism for
    moving it around.  I believe (and I
    believe the record would show) that unions generally do not harm the
    competitiveness of their industry in the short- to medium-term.  They have no incentive to.  What we have seen a lot of is this
    pattern:  a monopolistic or protected
    firm has, thereby, a way of generating excess profits, and strong unions
    capture some of these profits in long-term contracts.  Then the business environment changes, so no
    more excess profits.  Except the firm is
    now committed by long-term contracts to keep shelling out to the union.  This does harm competitiveness. 


    The union would like to keep the money flowing, of course,
    but even so has an incentive to restructure its contracts.  However, if the union is dominated by
    retirees, as at GM, then even that incentive is crippled, and there is no good
    way forward.


    Public-sector unions work for the most monopolistic of
    firms, the government.  They are probably
    benefitting from the partial capture of excess rents.  As government continues to get squeezed (this
    pressure comes from legislators, mostly, driven in turn by the public), we can
    expect long-term public employee contracts to look increasingly gravy-laden (uncompetitive)
    compared to the rest of society.  Some
    renegotiating will have to happen, and we can expect public retirees to scream

  • Peter Boysen

    A number of comments have already mentioned that compulsory union membership almost entirely spoils it (and likely violates what we’d all consider right to contract), so I’ll just add a specific illustration. A friend of mine worked for the city, and was in the union against his will. A higher up developed some antagonism for him for whatever reason, and decided to fire him for poor performance (which would be fine, if it were true). Now he’s in a position of relying on the union to represent him against “the city” which in this case is in fact another, senior, union employee who has been more active in the union and for longer. So not only does he not have viable representation for himsel, but he’s splitting the dues he’s paid evenly between his defense and his accusation. This of course is theoretically true of the other side as well, but if either party spends more time chumming with the union rep vs. say, doing his or her job, then in fact both parties will be paying either for the accusation or defense, and the whole premise is lost anyway.

    • good_in_theory

      Hey guess what, in criminal trials a state prosecutor often faces off against a public defender, and both of them are paid by… the criminal’s tax money.

      Shocking, right?

  • Dick King

    Point number 7 is salient.

    I like the Free Access to Clinics Act [which forbids obstructive picket lines in front of abortion clinics].  It sets fairly clear standards on where picketing is allowed,  There must be a ten foot wide corridor, they have to stand clear of the parking lot entrances, etc.  It’s been effective.  However, I think it didn’t go far enough.

    Picketers should be forbidden to obstruct the entrances to a place where ANY lawful activity takes place. 

    I have an interest in this.  At one time I was working for a small software contractor on a software project at an RCA site when a union called a strike that had nothing to do with us.  We continued our work.  RCA asked us to drop our work and do the strikers’ jobs at our software developer rate — which we refused.  The union asked us to stop our [unrelated to the union] work.  We refused that too.  So every day when we went to work, on those occasions when I drove a car to work I had a several minute ordeal and the guys would pound on the hood of the car and shake their fists at me.  When I rode my [pedaled] bicycle, I would hold it over my head and walk through a gap in the hedge and at first I felt pleased with myself — until they slashed my bike tires.  They knew who I was — I was the only one who biked to work at all regularly — so they knew I wasn’t any sort of hired scab or whatever.


    • Silly Wabbit


            I am going to cautiously challenge your harrowing tale.  Before doing so I must emphasize that I assume you were working for a company in the United States and sometimes within the last few decades. Much of what I will say might not apply to other countries or to the U.S. from several decades ago.

           I’ve done some informational picketing (though it was years ago) and been involved with a few other public demonstrations that are not union-related. It’s basically a rule that you stay on the easement and don’t block entrances because the cops will come shut you down.

          It is illegal for demonstrators to block the entrance of a facility. So the picketers could have easily been arrested one by one. But, in the case of labor picketing companies can get an injunction through the NLRB against picketing workers that would ban ALL picketing by the union near the facility.

           This is especially true if property destruction is involved. In other words, it’s shockingly odd that the employer would not file an injunction against picketers and allow the entrance to their facility to be blocked and constant property destruction. Seriously, they could have easily shut that picket down and put the union negotiators in a really bad spot. They could have called the local news and had them videotape the violence, causing public opinion of the union to drop.


      • Dick King

        This incident happened in 1974, on the very union-friendly East Coast [Piscataway, New Jersey]. 

        Of course obstructive picketing of abortion clinics theoretically can’t happen either … except it did, until the FACE Act.The bike incident was a one-off and I would have likely had no luck proving it was a union member who did it, and the union would have deniability. I can only describe what I personally observed, which was:1: On days when I took the car to work, people including some whom I recognized as unionized workers who normally worked within that facility would pound the hood of my car and shake fists at me. This situation happened for a couple of weeks, and ceased immediately when the strike ended.

        2: Other people in my company received similar attention.

        3: On one day when I biked to work and left my bike under an awning [well away from the picket line] it was vandalized.

        I have no doubt that you, personally, run clean pickets. However, I claim that what laws we have do not succeed in making s**t like I encountered not happen.

        You may call me a liar if you want.  Obviously I can’t prove an incident from forty years ago, but I think the normal life experiences of people who read this blog will confirm that obstructive pickets occur from time to time, even if they’re illegal.  Perhaps the union as a whole doesn’t sanction or organize the obstructive picket — they didn’t have professionally printed signs, for example — and perhaps they were careful to retain deniability.  Perhaps the police or individual policemen didn’t want to work this situation too hard, or perhaps the picketers scattered when the cops came.


        • Silly Wabbit


              Thanks for the clarification. I haven’t been on a picket or near any type of demonstration for roughly ten years; it would be a huge stretch to say I ever “ran” a picket line.

              I  did not mean to suggest that you were a liar- it’s more than I don’t think that your experience is typical of how things would go down today and, given the legal remedies available to companies, doesn’t make a great deal of sense.  Companies are pretty savvy are are apt to call the cops whenever they see workers with picket signs or 20-somethings in birkenstocks and dreadlocks with hastily scrawled cardboard signs. In the case of a union picket it’s not very hard for companies to shut down a picket line if picketer’s walk onto company property, block entrances, or engage in property destruction or violence. I’m not sure that your anecdote, however harrowing, is generalizable to contemporary experiences.

              In other words, employer’s have a quick and straightforward way to address these issues and I’m not sure that we can make an especially damning case against labor unions in light of the fairly stringent laws that govern picketing behavior.

          I thought that there was a good chance that maybe you had an experience from several years ago when laws might not have been as strict.
             I imagine that the “normal life experience” of many of the readers of this blog will not contain an experience with a picket line. Given the drastic decline in union members, and the relative decline in unions use of the strike as a tactic,  it’s perfectly reasonable to expect that a large share of the readers of this blog will have never even seen a real  live picket line of worker’s on strike. Heck, even in my situation we were doing informational picketing (we weren’t on strike). Other than that I don’t believe that I have ever seen or been near a picket line and I come from a fairly strong union state. Of course, I’m younger than you.

             Thanks for the clarification and for engaging in this discussion.


          • Dick King

             I have a more recent experience to report.  I did not report it before, because it was not first-hand.  It was reported in the local papers at the time, but I admit that I cannot find it in the [poorly organized and indexed] local paper’s archive search engine.

            At the time, 2010, I worked at Yahoo, in a building across the street from their headquarters complex.  My trips to headquarters were limited to visits to the company gym.  Yahoo is in California, and the weather is more bike-friendly — I always rode my bike at Yahoo.

            Yahoo, like most high-tech companies in the region, contracts with a janitorial services company for cleaning services.  The biggest janitorial services company’s union called a strike.

            Since the workers went to work every day at various high-tech companies, not at any company headquarters of their own, they chose to hold their obstructive pickets at high-tech company sites.  When I went for my workouts, rather than driving my bike in the main driveway as I did when there was no picket line, I went through a gap in the hedge holding my bike overhead, just as I had at RCA.  The gym was deep enough into the campus that I didn’t think anyone was going to leave their picket just to chase my bike.  Yahoo is a bigger place than RCA was and there were too many bikes there already.  I could, however, see the picketers.

            The picketers put their bodies in the way of cars and made going to work every day a miserable process.  I don’t know about the technicalities Silly Wabbit claims would protect Yahoo with one phone call — perhaps the fact that the union had no actual relationship with Yahoo mattered — but somehow this happened and it lasted about three weeks, recently.

            One fine day one of the picketers had a brilliant idea.  He memorized a license plate number, then threw himself to the ground.  The driver went past him and went to work, and the picketer FILED A POLICE REPORT claiming hit-and-run.

            “Dick”, you say “maybe there really WAS a hit and run!  Why are you so one-sided?”

            Yahoo had the foresight to mount a couple of video cameras with telephoto lenses aimed at the picket lines.  They caught the whole thing on tape [or flash memory, I suppose, these days].  The picketer who did this is in a lot of trouble for filing a false police report, but he didn’t know about the cameras, and when he pulled this stunt he was making an earnest attempt to get some guy that he [probably] didn’t even know in the kind of trouble that at best results in tens of thousands in legal fees and could result in jail time, for the “crime” of going to work in the morning.

            “This was one guy”, you might say.

            Fair enough.

            However, it was done in full view of a dozen picketers or more, none of whom came forward.  The police came to the picket line and collected statements and the rest of the picketers either supported the story or feigned ignorance.


          • Silly Wabbit


               Thanks again for the thoughtful reply. 

               As in your harrowing tale the employer could have fairly easily gotten an injunction against the union and stopped the picketing completely. This would have been a major blow to the worker’s and I’m not sure why the employer would not have done this. It would have put the union negotiators in a really bad spot. 

                I don’t doubt the veracity of either one of these stories, my point is that there are checks and balances in the law. Indeed, you note that the picketer was severely punished. 

                I guess I don’t really see what the big deal is. People break the law and they get punished. I don’t really get what you are so worked up about. You could apply this logic to any organization and delegitimize it.  

               I grew up in a baptist church.  A 40 year old preacher ran off with a 14 year old girl. The congregation seemed to blame the girl. That anecdote really makes baptists look like a-holes. But ultimately the guilty parties were punished and everyone moved on. I’m not sure that this, or similar instances, indicate that the baptists churhes should be dismantled or something. 

                On an unrelated note you have had some really great jobs and you must be quite fit……



          • dickking

            Silly Wabbit, you keep saying that companies can shut down obstructive picket lines with one call, and somehow they persist at installations owned by large, prosperous [at the time] multinational corporations.

            Open-minded people question their supposed knowledge when that “knowledge” [that companies can get obstructive picket lines shut down] leads to a prediction that doesn’t get borne out [that those pickets will disappear in a couple of days].

            The guy who broke the law and tried to make the police complicit in his attempt to punish the Yahoo employee got punished.  The police really couldn’t ignore that.  The guys who harassed me and other employees and contractors at RCA supposedly could have been enjoined, according to your theory, but somehow it didn’t happen.  Maybe the law you think exists has no force for some reason, or only exists in a few states.


    • sigaba

      “They knew who I was — I was the only one who biked to work at all regularly — so they knew I wasn’t any sort of hired scab or whatever.”

      Did you have a no-sympathy clause in your contract?  I could understand in that case.  I’ve had to cross picket lines before as well, but my union has a no-sympathy provision in its agreement — when SAG strikes I still go to work.

      Your tires weren’t slashed because you were a scab, they were slashed because you crossed the line.  I guess it’s a cultural thing, but in general, you’re not supposed to cross picket lines, neither as employee, customer or vendor.  If you must, then yeah, you shouldn’t be shocked if you get slashed tires, just the cost of doing business in that situation.  I guess that’s “Economic Terrorism,” maybe you should call Homeland Security or something :}

      • Dick King

        So I brought it on myself?  You excuse such behavior??  Really???

        Do women who wear sexually enticing clothing and walk down the street bring it on themselves if they get raped?

        If you believe that slashed tires and fist-shaking is a foreseeable and reasonable consequence of a strong union movement, then I say “eliminate all unions”.  It’s too high a cost.  Fortunately, I don’t believe that.  I believe that TRULY VOLUNTARY unions should exist, but that they share an obligation with the police to ensure that s**t like happened to RCA not happen.

        Software developers are not generally unionized.

        The small software company had a contract with RCA that specified prices and deadlines and what the software has to do, and probably governed access to the building.  I find it likely that an obstructive picket line was not foreseen, and I find it likely that the contract specified that we get access to the computer at specified hours, which would imply that we had every right to do what I did.  I find it extremely unlikely that the unions get to read RCA’s contract with a small software vendor.


        • sigaba

          I guess it’s just a cultural thing, the way I was raised, crossing a picket line would be like breaking a church window or peeing on the street. It’s just not civilized behavior and people are going to get upset. I wouldn’t call your treatment “fair,” but I don’t know how much farther it goes than that, and of course the guy that did it is liable to a vandalism charge.
          Claiming unions are “involuntary” is like saying you involuntarily drive a Volvo, because you don’t have a Mercedes. A union signatory employer accepts the condition they must only hire union employees, or else they lose the union employees to a strike; presented with that deal, they have to either take it or not, just like any other offer from any other supplier of a capital input. We don’t bat an eye at Monsanto selling insecticide that only works with their corn, or Apple selling software that only works with their hardware. A union sells workers that only work with each other; unions are a way of making labor capital proprietary and non-fungible.
          As a software developer I’m sure you’d respect a corporation’s right to make it’s product incompatible for the sake of its business model. Even if such a strategy is doomed, they’re still entitled to pursue it to success or failure.

          • Dick King

            It must be nice living in a simple world where, when there is an economic dispute, you accord moral right to one side and wrong to the other side, and you can tell which is which without knowing any of the issues.  In the complex world which I inhabit, failure to agree on a price is not a moral matter.  If there’s a house for sale for $200K and I offer $180K, the buyer either takes it or he doesn’t or he makes a counter-offer, but neither one of us gets on a moral high horse, even if we never do come to terms.  Furthermore, the issues surrounding the strike were complex [it wasn’t an ordinary end-of-contract-wage-negotiation strike] and I don’t pretend to have understood the issues at the time.

            But let’s suppose that crossing a picket line is deservedly something that’s not done in polite company.  Fine.  If you see someone break a church window or urinate in a street, do you slash his tires or condone someone else who does so?  Do you gesture at them in a manner that suggests impending physical violence or condone someone else who does so?

            Breaking a church window is vandalism.  You CAN reasonably take his picture and report him to the police.  Urinating in the street … I don’t know whether it’s legal or not.

            Unions get to practice behaviors that would be illegal if practiced by companies.  For example, at the times when foreign cars were a rarity, the Big Four could not have colluded on price or merged into one really large auto company, but there was only one UAW.  I’m actually okay with that, but they shouldn’t be allowed to sign the same cartelish contract with all of the Big Four.


        • Silly Wabbit

          Do women who wear sexually enticing clothing and walk down the street bring it on themselves if they get raped?”

          With all respect due you are not some victim of some terrible crime Dick. Something shitty happened to you in the 70s. People were assholes. It sucks. Hopefully karma came back to them at some point. 

          In the meantime, based upon your posts, you have probably made hundreds of thousands of dollars and lived a great lifestyle in one of the best parts of the world to live in.  Hell, you probably have one of the best bikes money can buy. 

          it seems like once somebody who was possibly a union member did something shitty to you and another time you were inconvenienced by unions. It’s sort of weird that the sum total of these experiences is enough to make you so anti-union. 
          You should relax and let go. You’re one of the fortunate few……..

          • dickking

            I have kind of a middle-class commuter bike — it weighs 19lb and cost about $800.  Nothing special.

            Some union members intimidate people that they perceive aren’t doing what they want them to do, with general approbation and connivance of those fellow members who don’t choose to practice the intimidation themselves.

            “So why do I obsess over this?”, you ask?

            You’re right, it’s been a nuisance but a relatively small one in my life.  However…

            a certain ex-Senator from Illinois who is now President of the United Stated was a co-sponsor of an Orwellianly-named bill called the Employee Free Choice Act.  Katrina vanden Heuvel, editor of The Nation Magazine, has very publicly called Obama to task for not pushing this bill, colloquially called “card check”, harder.  He’ll probably agree to do so this election cycle to gain a half million foot soldiers.

            Under current law, if 50% plus 1 of the employees in a proposed bargaining unit sign representation cards, the bargaining unit then votes in a SECRET ballot, run by the NLRB, and majority rules.  [There are rules for the case where there’s more than one union that wants to represent the workers, which I won’t go into here.]  So the final decision is made by a secret ballot.  When an organizer registers as trying to organize a specific bargaining unit, the company has to give the organizer the contact information, so he literally knows where you live, but intimidation is completely useless because he can browbeat you into signing all the representation cards he wants but it’ll come down to the secret ballot in the end.

            Under the law that then-Senator Obama co-sponsored, we would skip the secret ballot.  If the union gets the representation cards for 50+ % of the unit, they win immediately.  So these men, who think nothing of waving fists in peoples’ faces, slashing bike tires, and simulating hit-and-runs, who get a list of all of the employees’ physical mail addresses which tend to correspond closely to residences, are likely to show up on my doorstep in threes and ask to talk to me about signing a representation card — and they may not leave when I ask them to.

            Please remember the fact that some union members are not above intimidation when you think about direct or indirect votes on Card Check.


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  • Ghost of Christmas Past

     Josh alluded to this above, and so did Silly Wabbit, but neither at much length:

    Unions are inherently opposed to fair/efficient (that is, productivity-based) wages for their members.  If a union is “democratic” (and all unions claim to be, no matter how corrupt their leaders and institutions), then “one worker, one vote” drives its policy toward equalization of pay and benefits for members, at least those in roughly similar jobs.  If the contract grants some members more pay than others, those with lower pay will elect new union leaders to revise the contract.  Exerience shows that in the end, the only criterion for advancement which produces stability in union politics is seniority, because more- and less-productive workers all gain it at the same rate (of one day per day).

    Seniority is a very weak proxy for productivity, though, so unions invariably divert wages from more to less productive workers.  This naturally frustrates the more productive workers, so they are tempted to leave the union and bargain separately with employers.  To prevent that, unions must enforce closed-shop contracts (that is to say, summon-up “lawful” violence from the government/arbitrator to enforce a closed-shop contract) and/or resort to sabotaging defectors’ work or using unlawful violence against defectors.  (There are always some bullies available from the pool of less-productive members.)

    Although unions with closed-shop contracts have sometimes implemented “two-tier” contracts which pay junior members much less well than senior ones, that is simply the special case of the active members at contract-renewal time “outvoting” future members (who don’t get a vote until after they get hired and join the union).  As time passes the fraction of junior members will grow to the point where those members can obtain a contract revision in their favor.  Two-tier wage scales are never tied to productivity.

    In some other cases, the leaders of a union will make their union “undemocratic,” locking in their own power and with it the ability to relegate some members to lower wages (though wages are then set by cronyism more than productivity).  When this occurs it produces some combination of three results:  dissatisfied members leave the union and attempt to form another union or bargain separately– the original union will react with violence; dissatisfied members ask the government to remove the corrupt leaders of the original union– besides entangling the government in union politics, this rarely works, because the corrupt leaders can offer bigger bribes to government agents than the dissatisfied workers;  or the employer may attempt to bargain around the union– this will produce either government interference (NLRB rarely allows “decertification”) or else union violence.

    Since a union simply cannot be “democratic” and permit productivity-based wages at the same time, unions are always incompatible with both individual liberty and economic efficiency.

    • aka_Scoop

      I enjoy these lists where the writer pretends to be even-handed by listing multiple arguments for each side but — oops — somehow manages to leave off the best arguments for one side.

      The almost universal refusal by unions to connect wages to productivity is a far stronger argument against them than anything in Jacob’s anti-union list.

      Here’s another: Unions uniformly and often quite effectively fight the primary engine of increased societal prosperity: labor saving devices.

      As for the “due process” protections that unions give, in many cases they prevent arbitrary firings by making sure that no one is ever fired for anything. And that’s exactly the point.

      I’m not arguing that unions have never increased net welfare anywhere. Far from it. But this list is not a good place to start.

  • Silly Wabbit


        I don’t want to start an argument or anything but I will cautiously suggest that perhaps a few things in your post are not entirely accurate.

       You note the following: “Unions are inherently opposed to fair/efficient (that is, productivity-based) wages for their members. ”

         I don’t really understand why people believe this. I was only a union member for a few years but my contract included a number of performance incentives. My pops was a union worker and his contract had all sorts of performance incentives. I don’t know if there is any systematic research on this, but my suspicion is that performance-based pay is roughly as common in union shops as it is in non-union shops and if there is a difference it’s not terribly large.
          I got safety bonuses, attendance bonuses, pay for performance quotas. I did very similar work for a non-union employer and got none of those though the base pay was about the same.
          So to say that “unions are inherently opposed” to productivity pay goes to far; maybe in the grand scheme of things performance pay is slightly less common in unionized employers but you should also consider the type of work performed.  Certain types of workers, particularly those in more professional positions, may be less supportive of performance based pay because clear performance metrics are harder to establish. For example, it’s much easier to measure performance for a salesperson than it is for a statistics professor. But I think it’s more a function of the type of work involved rather than the unionization of workers. For example, I imagine that non-union statistics professors are roughly as resistant to pay based upon student evaluations as unionized statistics professors.
    ” unions invariably divert wages from more to less productive workers. 
    This naturally frustrates the more productive workers, so they are
    tempted to leave the union and bargain separately with employers.  To
    prevent that, unions must enforce closed-shop contracts (that is to say,
    summon-up “lawful” violence from the government/arbitrator to enforce a
    closed-shop contract) and/or resort to sabotaging defectors’ work or
    using unlawful violence against defectors.  (There are always some
    bullies available from the pool of less-productive members.)”

        Or, instead, the frustrated workers could just vote down the next contract or better yet, they could become part of the negotiating team and change the terms of the contract. There is a lot of unusual “this will inevitably lead to this” reasoning in your post. It seems more likely that workers will use democratic procedures already in place to address the parts of their CBA that they don’t like. Your  lord of the flies scenario is probably much less likely.

       Granted, union democracy isn’t perfect and you can certainly argue that giving workers some democratic control through collective bargaining over certain aspects of the conditions of their employment hurts “economic efficiency”; firms can’t do whatever they want whenever they want and perhaps in the long run this means that your average member of a society will have less stuff.  Indeed, some classes of workers might be less well-represented in the democracy because they are a numerical minority. For example, CBAs might be tilted in favor of technicians and away from stockers in an machine shop because techs outnumber stockers. However, this is not an indictment of unions per se but democracy itself.

       I think what you are saying is that “democracy is incompatible with economic efficiency and individual liberty”.

    • Ghost of Christmas Past

       I’ve worked, mainly in “exempt” (staff, not management) jobs in unionized workplaces in several distinct industries.  I worked though the last (up until now– and possibly ever, given the decline of the industry) large newspaper-staff strike in America (at the Seattle Times and Post-Intelligencer in 2000).  I’ve seen union contracts and some of the evasions union leaders may permit to placate their more talented (or conniving) members.  (In Seattle before the strike, writers were paid at union scale, unless they were more talented or smarmy, in which case they were paid for “extra” work at “freelance” rates– which meant some people were paid twice for the same butt-in-seat working time.)

      I don’t mind conceding the existence of union contracts with performance incentives.  I think the more competitive the industry, the more likely such contracts are, since a union always has to calibrate its bargaining stance against the possibility of bankrupting the employer, which is much more likely in a competitive industry than a highly-concentrated one.  Note, though, that when the employer is that ultimate monopoly– government– union contract terms are quite unconcerned with performance.  This really matters because in 2011, 37% of American government workers were unionized versus 7% of private-sector workers.  More union members overall (7.6 million) worked for government than in the private sector (7.2 million).  (Things are worse than those numbers suggest– unionized employees of General Motors and government contractors like defense firms are counted as “private sector” workers when they really aren’t.)

      The big problem with union contract negotiating is the virtually inescapable bell curve of performance.  Given any reasonable sample of workers– say, union members doing fairly similar jobs at a large employer– you will find that most of them (roughly 2/3) exhibit “middling” productivity within 1 standard deviation of the group mean.  Roughly 1/6 will achieve low productivity (whether due to incompetence, absenteeism, quarreling…), and 1/6 will display high productivity (whether due to cleverness, diligence, superior social skills…).

      What you’ve got to know about the bell curve is, that it’s pretty hard to distinguish among the mass of people near the middle.  It’s fairly clear to management who’s a standout high or low, but near the middle any criteria adopted to distinguish “better” workers will appear arbitrary to many workers who can (quite reasonably) judge that their own performance is pretty similar to that of most peers, and whose egos will not accept that they themselves are, say, 0.3 SD below the mean instead of 0.3 SD above.

      Anyway, you might think, union members ought to be willing to accept higher (or lower) pay for really good (or poor) co-workers.  But they generally aren’t, because most workers feel (again, with some justice) that they are “just as good” as their co-workers (remember, most of them spend most of their time with co-workers of roughly equivalent performance) and that anyone who management might wish to pay more is a suck-up or some other kind of cheater.  Such envy is fed by the fact that management (and union leaders) really do indulge in all sorts of favoritism, nepotism, etc.

      When it is time to elect union officers, the candidates who promise to bargain for seniority-based pay will usually attract majority support, because they can count on the bottom 1/6 for sure and usually most of the “middling”-talent union members.  The top 1/6 usually cannot gain a majority for a bargaining position (performance-based pay) which offers no advantages to the bottom 5/6.  “Middling” workers can look forward to gaining seniority– all that takes is time– but have no real hope of joining the high-productivity cohort, because that depends upon inherent ability.

      I respect your unionized work experience, I just don’t think it supports the notion that most union contracts are like that, nor the idea that we should set public policy to favor unions (like the Wagner Act) because we may get a few good outcomes when statistically we can expect mostly bad outcomes.

      However, my preferred “bleeding heart libertarian” approach to private-sector unionization would be “government hands off.”  Workers obviously have a natural right to free association, and employers obviously have a natural right to bargain with whomever they please.  So long as neither side uses violence the government should stay out (that means no Sherman Act prosecutions of workers, and no Wagner Act prosecutions of employers).

      Strikes or “job actions” by government workers should result in immediate and permanent dismissal, possibly even prosecution, because government is special– it’s a dangerous monopoly which obtains all of its resources by force from the public Also, government-worker unions, if allowed any power, are too likely to gain control of “both sides of the bargaining table.”  Any union striking against government is committing aggression against the public, so government workers uniquely should be forbidden to strike.  Government workers should (nearly always*) be allowed to quit anytime.  If any government worker feels underpaid or underappreciated he should seek a private-sector job.

      *In both the private sector and the government, a few workers (like nurses or firefighters) could be expected to sign personal-services contracts limiting their rights to quit for specified periods of time.  There are a few jobs for which such contracts are appropriate and libertarian theory doesn’t forbid a worker to freely commit to a defined term of employment.

      • LarryM

        The thing that most gets me about the debate over public employee unions is the fact that, generally speaking, public safety unions are exempted from all criticism (not, to be fair, from libertarians, but in terms of conservatives and in terms of the political process). I would say that far and away the worst horror stories regarding public unions – whether related to compensation, work rules, or the more pernicious effect on public policy more generally (e.g., the prison industry) – occur in the public safety context, police, fire fighters, and corrections officers.

        Of course no coincidence that police and firefighters especially are reliable Republican constituencies.

      • Silly Wabbit


              Thanks for the thoughtful reply and for sharing your opinions regarding workplace democracy, bargaining and the like. 

              I think you are correct in that organized workers will generally oppose the type of performance metric you propose-one in which thresholds are constantly being shifting to maintain a normal distribution.

           “The big problem with union contract negotiating is the virtually inescapable bell curve of performance.  Given any reasonable sample of workers– say, union members doing fairly similar jobs at a large employer– you will find that most of them (roughly 2/3) exhibit “middling” productivity within 1 standard deviation of the group mean.  Roughly 1/6 will achieve low productivity (whether due to incompetence, absenteeism, quarreling…), and 1/6 will display high productivity (whether due to cleverness, diligence, superior social skills…).”

            I’m sure in some abstracted world in which workers are randomly assigned to different companies and labor is immobile this is true. However, given that union workers make between 16-27% more than their non-union counterparts we should expect some selection effects. That is, better workers will migrate out of the lower wage non-union portion of a particular labor market and into a higher compensation union unemployment. 
           In other words, the baseline truck driver at UPS is probably a better truck driver than one of the top performers at XYZ Trucking. The average union cop at the major metropolitan deparment is probably a better cop than the average small town cop. It’s not  stretch to think that top performers will select into jobs with higher wages, better benefits, less verbal abuse from management etc. and those jobs will tend to be union jobs in many industries. Presumably the low performers (e.g.-truck drivers with bad vision of DUIs) will be mired in the lower wage tiers of a given market for a given job. 
           Pay based entirely on a collection of quantifiable performance metrics is decidedly rare even in non-union jobs. Generating good performance metrics, collecting data, and then analyzing it can be cost prohibitive for many jobs. The costs of research design, data collection and data analysis may nullify other savings. For all but the routinized types of work it’s profoundly difficult; I think this is a more likely explanation for the economy-wide paucity of compensation packages based entirely on performance metrics not resistance of unions. 

           With that being said folks who have not fully wrestled with these difficulties might think that pay for performance as a fiscal panacea for challenges ailing on industry or one employer or another. However, for many types of jobs radical transitions to performance based pay will be quiet difficult. 

            Much of this discourse in the blogosphere focuses on teachers and members of that profession’s general reluctance to embrace wholesale changes to their compensation packages. Now, I’m sure that given enough money, time, data and statisticians we could quantify the performance of individual teachers.

            In higher ed reformers want to reduce instructor’s base pay and provide performance incentives based upon student feedback or grades (or a combination of both). To me, this is not a terribly good metric for performance based pay. At this point it doesn’t really matter because public sector wages have been frozen for 3 years in my state (even those with a union…..). 

           Now, it’s fine to make a moral, religious or philosophical argument against collective bargaining and workplace democracy.But I think that the evidence probably does not support your rather stylized views and the linear chain of events that you lay out (i.e. high seniority workers use violence against low seniority workers) is low-probability and not inevitable.  This section of your critique applies to all democracies (majorities can purposefully or indirectly oppress minorities) and not explicitly unions. 

        it wouldn’t be morally unreasonable to argue that all work should be pay for performance without regard for costs. And it’s perfectly fine to make moral arguments of one kind or another against public sector unions. 

        Thank you for the thoughtful discussion. If you choose to reply I will  read your post but I have much to attend to over the next several days so I probably won’t reply. 



  • LarryM

    I think much of the libertarian opposition to unions is pure mood affiliation. Looking at the list of negatives, it’s basically all consequentialist. Now, there are consequentialist libertarians, but generally bad consequences aren’t going to trump liberty interests, and, of the three things on the positive side of the ledger, one of them is a strong liberty argument, i.e., the right of a association. ALL of the negative arguments are the type of arguments rejected out of hand by most libertarians when deployed by non-libertarians when challenging property rights.

    I would thus go so far as to say that, on that basis alone, a consistent libertarian should support unions under normal circumstances, i.e., when not at some level imposed by the state.

    • sigaba

      “I think much of the libertarian opposition to unions is pure mood affiliation.”

      At the turn of the 20th century, things were quite different — French and British socialists and labour party members used to have fierce arguments over wether it was possible to be a socialist and be a member of the government.  It was presumed that the state was anti-labor and that labor solidarity was a critical bulwark against state power.  People like Bismarck countered their national labor movements by offering pensions and health care regulation, as a way of trying to rob their labor unions of independent power to provide these things without state involvement.  If you’re a minarchist, what could be wrong with that, amirite?  In Europe small-l liberals were always on the outs with the conservative governing coalitions, because in europe conservatives were statists, traditionalists and monarchists.

      I think things are different now, and in the US in particular, because the political coalitions are different here and now.  Small-l liberals have always been at home with the Republican coalition, the Republican coalition is anti-union for various historical reasons, and traditionalist conservatives in the US are pervasively capitalist, unlike just about anywhere else on Earth.  I also think, to be honest, a lot of libertarian writing and think-tankery in the US is simply bankrolled by guys who’s bottom-lines are hurt by unionism — libertarian intellectuals in the US are raised on Mises and Rothbard, not Proudhon or Chomsky.

      • LarryM

        Obviously I agree with much of what you say. A couple points of minor disagreement:

        I don’t think you need to invoke Chomsky, who, despite his mostly spot on observations on interventionism, certainly is someone whose libertarian bona fides can be questioned. Obviously there is a long line of pro-labor libertarian thinkers; if you want to invoke contemporaries, it seems to me Roderick Long and, arguably Kevin Carson are better examples than Chomsky. (Long, of course, is not one whose libertarian bona fides can be questioned; less true of Carson, though I’d put him firmly in the libertarian tradition, unlike Chomsky.)

        And the “bankrolled by guys who’s bottom lines are hurt by unionism” obviously has some truth to it, but IMO doesn’t really much explain why the typical libertarian is anti-union. The reasons have more to do with political coalitions, as you point out.  In fairness, it might also in part be a reaction to unions as they exist today (a product IMO mostly of government intervention, which on balance is probably hostile to the better kind of unionism).

    • DavidCheatham

      I’m glad someone else pointed that out. I read this article a few times in disbelief, thinking ‘Wait, since when did libertarians care about that?’. I am not a libertarian, but I thought I had a pretty good handle on the premise, but reading this, I was just baffled. Only two of the anti- arguments even seem about libertarian issues at all.

      I mean, just look at #6. That’s not even an argument about unions, it’s an argument that unions tend to propose policies that libertarians don’t like! Well, boo-hoo.
      And don’t get me started on #7, which is just so absurd I can’t even answer it. (Except to say one word: Churches.)

      And #3 is an argument that ‘Unions can make companies less competitive’…so? When did libertarians start caring that random companies were more competitive? This is a reasonable argument for a _corporation_ to take against a union, but did libertarians become representatives of corporations while I wasn’t looking? (Short answer: Yes.) Does  ‘bleeding heart’ now refer to how to feel about those poor corporations?

      #5 would be more reasonable if at this point in time corporations that had unions actually _paid_ for worker ingenuity before that. Or is the issue, the poor corporations that would like the workers to step outside of their jobs and make the corporations more money. (But can’t conceive of paying them better?) Seriously, us ‘helping’ the corporation we worked for was back in the old days, when they showed us loyalty and would reward us for that. Not in the present day, where unions are needed to keep them from constantly slashing our health insurance and laying us off whenever a cheaper person comes along.

      #2 would be a bit more relevant if workers weren’t _already in_ a hierarchy with highly problematic power relations. At least the union hierarchy is a democracy, and bad apples can be voted out. (And I’m baffled as to what sort of power union officials are supposed to hold over individual workers to extort them with, anyway? What sort of weird union is this? It’s certainly less than the power your boss holds over you.)

      The only _legitimate_ issues for libertarians to even care about on a libertarian basis are #1 and #4.

      #4 is basically the same issue as minimum wage laws and has been 
      rehashed over and over. If, as a libertarian, you agree with min wage laws, you should have no issue here. If you don’t, you can in theory take issue here. (Although, as these are not the government imposing wages, you should probably take _less_ issue.)

      #1 is…well, it’s one of those hypothetical issues that sounds good, but doesn’t actually appear to happen. It’s really just a easy place for politicians to complain about the predecessor.  Basically, if anyone is going to bitch about it, I want to see them bitching about all the _other_ contracts that governments sign also. But, it, admittedly, does occupy a somewhat-tricky ground of public/private that libertarians care about.

      Those are really the only libertarian issues that exist with unions. One of them is only with public unions, and the other is a basically ‘I disagree with outside entities requiring  corporations to agree to pay a specific minimum wage before they will do business with them.’, which is a pretty consequentialist in and of itself.

  • Counsellor

    I say, given your field, haven’t you read Mancur Olson?

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  • CarbonaNotGlue

    The libertarian stance on unions I think should be the same as the libertarian stance on abortion (and religion for that matter) .. that the State should neither support nor inhibit it. I cheer along with everyone else at documentaries showing early freely associating unions battling union-busting government goons.  I feel equally passionate against the idea of modern-day government enforced rules forcing workers to join unions, pay political union dues and forbidding secret union ballots.  The libertarian bias towards free association is consistent across time and circumstance.

    • LarryM

      Not to nit pick on a sensible comment, but I think the secret ballot question is more fraught than you allow from a libertarian perspective.  Currently union organizing is heavily governed by government regulation. The pure libertarian response would be to get the government out of union organizing altogether. But that would necessarily mean secret  ballots – requiring secret ballots is as un-libertarian as forbidding secret ballots. 

      Setting aside principles and getting down to the empirics, IMO the status quo goes too far in terms of (effectively) allowing employer intimidation, whereas card check would probably go too far in the other direction in terms of (effectively) allowing union intimidation.  Not really sure what a meaningful compromise would be.

      • LarryM

        rather, would NOT necessarily mean secret ballots.

        Though digging further, sans government regulation, union organizing would arguably be even easier than card check, and almost by definition NOT secret.

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  • Mike Huben

    It is sad that nobody here has even mentioned the idea of countervailing powers.  Corporations and the rich are hugely supported by government, and short of feudalism would not exist without those government supports.  Why should they be granted power but workers not be granted countervailing power?

  • Well, I’m a progressive. Not a libertarian. I think all the points you raise, both in favor and against unions, are broadly correct. People should pay attention to them regardless of their political position. 

    I would add, against unions, that under the wrong circumstances unions can make it impossible for workers who should be terminated to actually get terminated. (I would caution free marketers that similar dynamics can exist in management, without unions being involved.)

    I would add, for unions, that income and wealth inequality is a major problem, and that unions have pushed back against that. I realize this is a libertarian forum. I realize that libertarians and conservatives are much more tolerant of an unequal distribution of wealth and income than liberals. 

    However, I would posit that our present distribution is so unequal that it’s an objective problem. And I’d refer to David Frum, a conservative. In a Bloggingheads interview with Mike Konczal, Frum says that he once was against a welfare state because the economy was such that you could find a job. It might not be a nice one, but it would pay the bills. That is no longer true, and it is getting less and less true by the day. And yet the richest are capturing a growing share of income growth. We need to do something. Obviously I would disagree with Frum on what. But again, our wealth distribution is now unequal enough that it is affecting our economy, it is destroying prospects for upward mobility, and it is affecting the prospects of people who can’t move up to just stay afloat. It is now an objective problem.

    • I’m arightwingextremist

      Weiwen Ng,

      I thought your remarks (from 8 months ago) about unions and imbalances
      in wealth and power were well reasoned, although I would reach different
      conclusions than you reached in your comment.

      What interested me was the fact that you describe yourself
      as a progressive, but read David Frum, and have the interest and patients to
      read and engage intellectually with libertarians.

      I believe that any open-mined intelligent progressive who
      exposes himself sufficiently to libertarian thought will in due time become a
      self-described libertarian. So I was just wondering, has this happened to you?

  • J_Mann

    ” The fact that workers have so often and in so many places sought to
    organize, and the fact that firms have so often and in so many places
    resorted to illiberal restrictions on freedom of association if not
    outright violence to prevent them from doing so, itself looks like prima
    facie evidence from the world in unions’ favor.”
    I’m not sure why your conclusion follows from your premise — it’s not surprising that a group of workers forming a cartel and excluding non-cartel entrants may be desirable to the cartel members and may be opposed by the people they do business with.   That doesn’t tell us anything about whether the cartel is socially desirable or not.

  • You all can argue the fine points of this till the cows come home. BUT, I think it’s instructive to note that one of the very first things that the most totalitarian, illiberal, governments the world over do is ban unions. That has to mean SOMETHING.

  • Mike Huben

    Whenever the legislature attempts to regulate the differences between masters and their workmen, its counsellors are always the masters. When the regulation, therefore, is in favour of the workmen, it is always just and equitable; but it is sometimes otherwise when in favour of the masters. Adam Smith, “The Wealth Of Nations”, pg. 151

  • Todd Seavey

    The humanitarian’s first concern should be the problem of people attempting to invade and use others’ property without permission, as that is strongly negatively correlated with utility.  Talking about employers as if they are somehow harming workers who aren’t getting everything they want from the employer is as nonsensically atemporal as saying of a burglar and an apartment owner that “Now that the burglar’s in the house, they had better comes to terms with their ‘ambiguous power relationship’.”  

    Owners should do what they want.  There is absolutely no reason beyond leftist bias to sympathize with groups that clearly could be ordered off the property — a simply employment saying you are fired immediately if engaged in union-like activities — in a true free market, which presumably is what libertarians think best correlates to _overall_ human well-being, not just narrowly (and short-sightedly) considered “workers’ interests.”

    If historical wrongdoing by companies (such as Pinkertons machine-gunning laborers) existed, outlaw that.  Do not, even by vague and convoluted expressions of quasi-metaphysical sympathy, encourage some additional set of property-violating moves even more likely to become permanently enshrined in law.  Encourage, too, strong enough contract enforcement to permit “fired if a union member or organizer” arrangements.  Of course, if employers don’t want that, so be it.  But there is no reason to believe overall utility will be fostered by treating property ownership, including business ownership, as less than decisive here.  

    It’s irresponsible to even imply otherwise — and indeed a bit dangerous to pretend that the overall state of industries is the level at which market-savvy people ought to be gauging such things.  Statisticians and Paul Krugman might enjoy that game, but it never ends, will never be won, and will not produce many beneficial results.

    And if you don’t want to be sexually harassed, don’t work for Playboy — or show a lot more foresight in the contract negotiations…even at IBM.  Be warned that many of your fellow employees may be trying to get stuff from the employer without paying or negotiating for it, by the way, and we probably ought to be worrying about that problem far more than we do.

    • G Kochanski

      One of the basic problems with the employer-employee relationship is that when it ends, it’s usually the employee who moves.   Every time I change jobs, I move house, lose friends, drag my wife and kids around.   So, the employer-employee relationship is asymmetric, and it ain’t never gonna be a completely free, open, an fair market for labor.  Not as long as employees have friends and families (remember that companies don’t).

      So, let’s be real.   People don’t change jobs unless conditions are pretty darn bad because the cost of changing jobs is very high.   The labor market has huge friction in it.   So, don’t give us solutions that might work in a la-la land of frictionless transactions.  Talk about real people and real markets, and then you might say something worthwhile.

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  • Tibor R. Machan

    If a group of workers {unionized) enters into a contract without a group of entrepreneurs committing to dealing only with each other in some enterprise (which is a closed shop), this would be exercising one’s right to liberty. QED

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  • Well, I’ll be….a _realistic_ libertarian, one that acknowledges _reality_, no less. We need more of you. Breed heavily, my friend. : )

  • Tristan

    There are two styles of union, hierarchical and rank and file.

    The hierarchical unions are the dominant form today, their leadership’s interests lie with the employers and big business. They actually tend to sell out their membership with false victories negotiated with the state or bosses. They are political, often explicitly support a particular party (such as the Labour Party here in the UK). They are part of the establishment and objectionable to libertarians of all types (although it may be worth an individual joining one since they have the resources to offer support and training to the individual).

    The rank and file union has a flat structure. Decisions are made locally where possible and they are run by their members not a bureaucracy. They tend to be cracked down upon by the state and business as they offer a greater threat to their power.
    Examples are the IWW and anarcho-syndicalist unions such as FAU in Germany. Some less libertarian unions are also controlled more directly by their rank and file (eg the RMT in the UK).

    The latter are libertarian in outlook and tend to respect individuality and focus on mutual aid. Often you find them in areas where there are poor working conditions and pay, organising those who the mainstream unions reject or ignore.

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  • DavidBernstein

    What restrictions on freedom of association were there before the Wagner Act, beyond (a) contractual agreements not to join a union (yellow dog contracts) and injunctions against strikes that either involved violence and/or coercion, or were in violation of the workers’ contract?

    “Whatever one’s complaints against the regime of employment relations created by positive legislation such as the Wagner Act, unionization comes first, before the state action and initially in spite of state action.” I’m not sure what you meant by in spite of state action, local politicians often favored labor unions and looked the other way re union violence, especially when the targets were blacks and others excluded from the unions. And unionization rates went up almost four times after the Wagner Act, that’s quite a difference.

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  • Bryan J. Maloney

    Just for grins, I decided to see if the arguments against unions would work if used against large corporations. It turns out they do. The problem is not unions in and of themselves. If anything, there is no valid purely libertarian argument against unions. After all, a union is merely a business devoted to selling its clients’ (members’) labor. Nobody wants to admit to this, though. Unions only become unacceptable within a libertarian paradigm once they become compulsory by government action. However, if an employer and a union enter into a contract, then they enter into a contract. If there was no violence nor threat of violence, no government coercion, then there is no valid libertarian argument against the process. A corporation is a collectivist entity, after all. It collectivizes the investments of shareholders and manages that for them. A union does the same for labor. If unions ought not exist, then corporations ought not exist.

    Anyway, my reflection of the anti-union points to show that they are equally valid against large corporations:

    1) Large corporations often harm the well-being of small
    businessmen by making entry and survival in the marketplace more difficult,
    raising the lowest regulatory hurdles above the marginal profitability of

    2) This provides the large corporations institutionally with
    a kind of control over access to business operability rents, which contributes
    to collusive power relationships between corporations and government that can
    be highly problematic.

    3) Large corporations have often contributed to making their
    industries or market sectors uncompetitive, they lack a built-in check that
    would keep them from making rent-seeking a major form of revenue. This may be
    an even worse problem when they collude with government to obtain de facto regulatory capture of a market
    or rely upon large government-sourced subsidies to maintain their operability,
    putting the corporations one significant market fluctuation or electoral
    handover away from disaster.

    4) Large government contracting corporations have, under
    some conditions, a considerable ability to capture both sides of the
    customer-seller relationship and seariously weaken public sector budget

    5) Large corporations bureaucratize work relations in ways
    that can be both unpleasant and counterpructive for all concerned; they create
    rigidities and inflexibilities that can prevent cooperative improvements.

    6) Large corporations form the financial core of political
    parties and movements that seek to do more than profit from legitimate business
    pursuits rather than indulge in rent seeking and regulatory capture; they’ve
    been a major force for capital-feudalist political economic organization. And
    the politics they shape is not especially prone to being liberal along
    cultural, social, or constitutional dimensions.

    7) Large corporations—their
    leadership, their shareholders, their suppoerters—are capable of significant bullying that easily
    spills into immoral coercion against outsiders, non-stockholders, and
    dissenters; the charge of “socialist” is often an accusation of punishable
    treason against a cause that the accused never signed up for.

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  • John Novotny

    “As I said: not yet a theory, just a collection of views. I’m curious how they strike you. ”

    Ha! No pun intended?

  • John Novotny


    The end of work? Utopia or the creation of a vast underclass? In the coming decades robotics and AI may likely wipe most jobs. In the linked podcast above Futurist Ray Kurzweil squares of with economist MIT economist Andrew MacAfee on the implications of technology on the labour market.

    It maybe more crucial than ever to seek ways to strengthen organized labour and to include organized labour in the discussion what is going to happen with increased automation.

    “Between 2000 and 2014, the median U.S. income has actually dropped: from $55,986 to $51,017.

    Over the same period corporate profits have more than doubled. The workforce participation rate in May of this year was 62.8%, the lowest since 1978. The level of investment in equipment and software bounced back to 95% of its historical peak just two years after the same recession that trashed all the jobs that have been so slow to come back.

    One of the questions about big gains at the top, stagnation (or worse) at the middle and bottom — is how much is owed to the technology part of the capital, and really the automation of jobs formerly held by human beings.

    We know that the number of American routine jobs dropped by 11 percent between 2001 and 2011. And a new study by Carl Benedikt Frey and Michael Osborne at Oxford University suggest that 47% of U.S. jobs might be vulnerable to loss by automation.”

  • Lala72

    It’s really not as complicated as you make it, Jacob. In fact, you sound much more like a conservative with this argument than an actual “libertarian.”

    If you’re a true libertarian with a small “L”, you should have no issues with unions in and of themselves; a union is nothing more than a collection of individuals coming together for greater good via voluntary and peaceful means.

    What should concern you as a libertarian is when that union goes on strike and then prevents, by force, “scab” workers from replacing them. Or, when unions reach out to the government for special privileges and/or status.

    But unions in and of themselves are, in fact, a very libertarian concept: individuals coming together for greater benefit to each involved without harming anyone or anything else in the process.

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  • JayJenkins

    Hello. I am a leftist liberal and proud of it. Here is how I view unions.

    1) I treat unions exactly the same as homeowners associations. I hate homeowners associations. I would never, ever, buy a house with an association attached to the deed. But there are people who want to live in these associations and that is fine. I’ll buy a house somewhere else. If you don’t like unions, get a job somewhere else.

    2) Unions are protected under the US constitution. Workers have a right to associate and discuss their grievances among each other and can form a contract among themselves to collectively bargain. (1st amendment) If the employer refuses to give in to their terms, they can strike and the company can hire a new workforce. (13th amendment) The state has no right to interfere with this. (Article 1 section 10.1)

    3) So many on the right, and far too many libertarians, complain that this violates other people’s “right to work.” It does not violate your right to work anymore than a HOA violates your right to buy a house or an exclusivity clause between McDonald’s and Coke violates your right to sell cola. Unless you have a contract, you work at the will of the employer.

    4) At the bottom of every union contract is a space where management agrees to the terms. Who the hell are you to tell that business owner what contract to sign or not to sign?

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