Can an Even-Handed Government Labor Policy Be Worse Than a One-Sided Government Labor Policy?


End “Collective Bargaining Rights” and “Right-to-Work” Laws

Principled libertarians may oppose virtually all government limits on the freedom of contract, but still recognize that as long as the government does impose limits it should act evenhandedly. (Image: © Royalty-Free/CORBIS.)


Philosopher Roderick Long, a libertarian himself, has defined libertarianism as “any political policy that advocates a radical redistribution of power from the coercive state to voluntary associations of free individuals.”  If this understanding is correct, then it follows that libertarians should oppose federal laws such as the National Labor Relations Act (NLRA), the Railway Labor Act (RLA), and the Norris-LaGuardia Act, as well as analogous state statutes.

If a majority of the front-line employees in a business at any point in time indicate that they prefer to be represented by a particular union at the bargaining table, the NLRA and RLA empower that union to act as the “exclusive” (monopoly) bargaining agent for all front-line employees on matters concerning their pay, benefits and work rules.  The employer consequently loses the freedom to bargain individually with his or her employees, including even those employees who oppose unionization.  Employees who don’t want the union must accept it as their monopoly-bargaining agent, or quit.  Norris-LaGuardia also limits the freedom of contract, but less drastically.  A key provision in this 1932 law prohibits private-sector employers across the country from making union nonmembership a condition of employment for job seekers.

For years, Libertarian commentators and academics have indeed supported, overwhelmingly, repeal of the NLRA, the RLA and Norris-LaGuardia.  But libertarians, unlike many other Americans, typically do not have a problem with business contracts that make union membership or nonmembership a condition of employment — as long as public policy does not mandate or otherwise actively promote such contracts.

At the same time, libertarians are sharply divided on the practical question of how the U.S. can best get from the status quo, in which the federal government intervenes heavily and with an intense pro-union monopoly bias in labor-management relations, to a future in which the federal government does nothing to regulate interactions between employees and employers other than apply the common law.

Many principled libertarians, such as Charles Baird of the Heartland Institute, Shikha Dalmia of the Reason Foundation, and Iain Murray of the Competitive Enterprise Institute oppose virtually all government limits on the freedom of contract, but still recognize that as long as the government does impose limits it should act evenhandedly.

Current federal labor policy prohibits businesses from making union nonaffiliation a condition of employment, but actively pressures businesses to make union membership or financial support a condition of employment.  Libertarians such as Baird, Dalmia and Murray prefer that the government protect the individual employee’s freedom either to join or not join a union rather than intervene in labor-management relations one-sidedly.  And they plausibly contend that denying union officials, the chief beneficiaries of the current federal policy, the power to extract forced financial support from employees could pave the way for complete repeal of the NLRA, the RLA, and other federal labor statutes.

But some libertarian intellectuals such as blogger Michael LaFerrara, a frequent contributor to The Objective Standard, evidently believe that until Congress is ready to ditch all the current federal laws governing labor-management relations the only appropriate stance for libertarians is to oppose all efforts, including Right to Work laws prohibiting forced union dues and fees, to mitigate these laws’ undoubtedly detrimental impact.  (See the recent commentary by LaFerrara linked above.)

It is the prerogative of LaFerrara and other intellectuals who share his views to oppose changing the way the government currently intervenes in labor-management relations so that the individual employee’s right not to join a union receives just as much legal protection as his or her right to join.  But there is nothing particularly “libertarian” about this anti-Right to Work stance, and no good reason to label it as such.