It's Hard To Be A Libertarian

Sometimes, it is difficult to figure out what the libertarian position on an issue should be, because it is so muddled with a history of government interference.

One such issue is the bill that passed the House (but is unlikely to become law) called the "Employee Free Choice Act."  The bill eliminates the requirement for secret ballot elections for forming unions, in favor of card checks (basically similar to signing a petition).  On its face, it is easy to laugh at the hypocrisy of Democrats, who are the first to claim voter intimidation even in secret ballot elections.  In no other context would the Democrats ever support such a voting change, but many in the party are convinced unions need a boost, and this is their solution.

This is the second pay-off to unions the Democrats have put forward.
Yesterday the House passed HR 800, the curiously misnamed "Employee
Free Choice Act" by a margin of 241-185. This act approves the use of
the very public card check method of certifying a union instead of
using a secret ballot.

As I mentioned here,
that opens the entire process to intimidation - on both sides. A secret
ballot was how it was formerly done and should have been preserved. I
can't imagine how anyone can make the argument, with a straight face,
that the card check system

But wait!  What is the individual rights position here?  Freedom of association means the government should not dictate to a group of people on how they organize.  If a group of even two people want to get together at GM and call themselves a "union" and approach management to negotiate, they should be able to have at it.  Of course, they'll probably get laughed out of the room, but it is odd the government should dictate how they can organize.  In a free society, this is how things should work -- any number of employees should be able to organize themselves.  If they get enough people, then they will have enough clout, perhaps, to be listened to by management.

Unfortunately, we don't live in a free society, and the term "union" comes with a lot of legal baggage.  Recognized unions are granted certain legal powers and rights that an average group of self-organized folks don't.  For example, they are the only private organizations in this country that I know of that have taxation power, and the power to demand absolutely that certain monies be withheld from employee paychecks (even of employees not in the union) and given to them.  Perhaps more importantly, companies can't ignore them - they have to negotiate with a recognized union.  Unions also have informal powers.  For example, the legal system tends to tolerate a lot of violence and physical intimidation by union members (in strikes and such) that it does not tolerate in other contexts  (seventy-five years ago, the situation was reversed and the system tolerated a lot of company violence against workers).

So what do you do?  I have the same problem with immigration policy -- I think a free society would allow free immigration, but we are not a free society and have a myriad of government handouts we just can't afford to give to everyone who shows up at the door.  Anyway, in the case of this bill, given the power we have granted to unions, I don't think the secret ballot election requirement is too unreasonable.  Or maybe we could offer a compromise:  Democrats can get card-check voting in unions as long as they allow the same system for presidential voting in Florida and Ohio.

  • I think you make some good points. But the "individual rights position" you mention isn't quite right, in my opinion, because in the current system union representation is "everyone or no one," which means that the labor organization is the exclusive representative of all employees -- even those that do not want that representation. This is collectivism in its purest form. Interestingly, there are some scholars who have recently advocated the notion that the current law would permit "minority unions" with the power to compel negotiation only on behalf of employees who want them whether that group constitutes a majority of the workforce or not. If I am rembering correctly, Charles Morris has recently written a book on that subject. I'm suprised that the labor movement hasn't tried to go that route.

    I think your statement about unions being "the only private organizations in this country that . . . that have taxation power, and the power to demand absolutely that certain monies be withheld from employee paychecks (even of employees not in the union)" is not technically accurate either. It is true that in some states unions have the right to negotiate dues or Beck objector fees to the union as a condition of employment, and I suppose that could be a "tax" of sorts if you have no other realistic job options. But the money cannot be deducted from an employee's paycheck without the employee's permission. Union fines and assessments do not constitute a "tax" in my opinion because these are only obligations that members agree to when they join (which no one can be required to do). They are more along the lines of the assessments that my neighborhood association can require pursuant to the covanants in the deed that I voluntarily purchased.

    I don't mean to be negative -- just correcting some technical points. Your observation about informal powers are dead on, as are many others.

    I enjoyed the article.

  • Jim Collins

    Elliot,
    I think you need to do a little more research on how unions work. In some States if you want to work in a certain field you have to deal with the union that the field pertains to. Sometimes you do not have to join a union, but you are still subject to their dues and fines.

    I was working with a crew installing a machine in Indiana several years ago. We actually had a union representative show up on site with a Court order that prevented us from doing any more installation work without the union's permission. Finally after several days we were allowed to finish our work because the machine was a prototype and the local union workers had no idea how to put it together.

    I have been shot at and have had my car firebombed by members of a union. Neither time was I employed as a strike breaker. The first time was when the plant where we were installing the machine that I mentioned earlier went on strike and we continued our work. The second time was when I was working as a temporary contractor on a contract that this company's union didn't want and they went on strike. Unions have become nothing more than legalized extortion.

  • Mesa EconoGuy

    Here’s a simple heuristic:

    Anything from the government (or various other left-leaning mass membership organizations) labeled “Free Choice Act” or “Freedom Protection” or “Defense of [insert cause here]” usually contains measures to achieve the opposite effect.

    That’s a little cynical/contrarian, but it’s surprisingly (disappointingly?) accurate.

    And unions are hopelessly corrupt organizations.

  • Dan

    Simple point. A government cannot bestow freedom. By it's very nature, government is coercive, and can only take freedoms away.

    The question should always be what good is gained by willingly surrendering my freedon to government.

  • markm

    Elliot: The union does have taxation power. Once a union contract is signed, union dues are deducted from workers' paychecks whether or not they are union members (if the workers even have a choice about being union members). The workers only have a choice about that portion of the dues that goes to explicit union political action, not about the dues that support union officials, offices, etc.

    The law is also tilted towards the union in a secret-ballot union certification election. Management is very restricted in what it can say against the union during a certification campaign. When a union was attempting to organize the factory where I work, we couldn't point out that union officials got higher pay than the factory management, and that those paychecks were going to come out of the workers' pay. Nor could we point out that their pay was not going to get any higher, because the company wasn't making any profit to begin with - although because this company always had tried to keep the workers well informed, they could easily have drawn that conclusion for themselves. (In the end, the union lost resoundingly. I certainly would favor a policy that sped up the certification elections considerably.)

    I've seen this from both sides. Now I'm an engineer working at a small electronics manufacturing plant - not really management, but for union purposes I might as well be. Back when I was young and foolish and working a lousy job assembling automobile parts, I joined the UAW and attempted to unionize the plant. Getting a majority in the certification election was the easy part - management attitudes quite different from where I work now made it easy. Getting a union contract that raised the pay enough to even make up for the cost of running the local was the hard part. I don't know if the money simply wasn't there, or if they were so attached to a high profit margin that they'd rather shut the plant than give an inch, but it soon became obvious that no gains were possible unless we went on strike and managed to effectively close the plant for months. With Michigan's bilious economy in the 1970's there were three more people waiting for every job, so the only way to carry out an effective strike was by violence to deter "scabs", and fortunately, none of us was that crazy. After a strike against another plant of this company devolved into a gun battle between union picketers trying to stop buses bringing in scabs and company security guards, most of us stopped coming to the union meetings. I joined the Air Force...

  • eddie

    Megan McArdle has a post and discussion thread about this here. One of the pro-union commenters (Brendan Sexton) makes an interesting point that I didn't know: in "right to work" states, the state is actually intervening in employer/employee employment decisions by forbidding employers and unions from agreeing to only hire union employees.

    If that's true, then I agree that it's a state intervention and thus bad - but one akin to forbidding employers from agreeing to shoot themselves in the head. I find it hard to believe that any employer would ever voluntarily agree to a union contract unless the union actually had cartel power, i.e. they somehow managed to get all competent employees to join the union. Cartels are very fragile and vulnerable to defections, in this case "scabs".

    The same commenter believes that employers should be required to "negotiate in good faith" with unions if the employees form one. That would obviously require government force of some kind. I'll admit to being ignorant of labor law; I assume that this is exactly what happens today, but I don't know that for sure. If anyone is better informed than I am I'd love to learn more.

  • Bill

    Markm is right; the current process is heavily biased against management, and this would make it far worse. If you have not been through it, it is hard to understand the level of pressure placed on employees to sign the union card. The only protection against forced union participation is the secret ballot.

    On top of that, where is the process for verification that the employee actually signed the card?

    Sorry. I've been on both sides here (although unwillingly a union member). I've had a lot of dollars extracted from me by a union, with little to show for it.

    There is a reason that the only area of growth enjoyed by unions in recent years in in the government sector. Only the government can give away the store and pass on the costs to the taxpayer without suffering harm (except to the taxpayer).

  • Jim Collins and Markum:

    I guess my first comment was typed rather hastily and didn’t make much sense. I do know how unions work, having represented management as a labor lawyer for over 20 years. The experiences you cited in your comments are quite real and quite familiar to me.

    The primary reason I commented in the first place was that the main article’s title and text seemed to be suggesting that there could be something philosophically “libertarian” about the proposed Employee Free Choice Act. My point, which I apparently didn’t get across very well, was that I just don’t see any room for that possibility. Accepting the wikipedia definition of libertarianism (that every person is the absolute owner of their own life and should be free to do whatever they wish with their person or property, as long as they allow others the same liberty), the “majority rules” determination of union representation – whether it be by card check or by secret ballot – seems antithetical to that philosophy. I was just surprised to see someone even ponder whether U.S. labor policy might be “libertarian.”

    You guys seem to take issue with my quibble with the main article’s use of the word “tax.” First, let me give you a little background as to why I quibbled. I operate a blog entitled “EFCA Updates,” http://www.efcaupdates.com, which is designed to keep the law firm’s business clients informed about this dangerous bill. In monitoring the public debate, I’ve become sensitive to rhetoric on both sides. In my opinion, the reasons for concluding that the bill would be very bad labor policy are so great that I do not wish to see those reasons discounted when they are couched in inflammatory language. Referring to union dues and fees with the emotionally-loaded term “tax” troubled me because it is not technically inaccurate. Admittedly, however, the practical effect probably does feel like a tax.

    Markum, though in some states employees can be required to pay dues (or what is known as Beck objector fees), no employee can legally be required to remit those dues or fees through payroll deduction. They still have to pay the union, they just don’t have to treat it like a “tax” for payroll purposes. If someone has dues coming out of their paycheck, it is because they signed a document authorizing it. Most people don’t realize that, of course, because of the “informal powers” that the main article so accurately described as being possessed by unions.

    Similarly, Markum, employees who do not join the union cannot be required to pay initiation fees, fines, or assessments. The only thing that can lawfully be mandated in a workplace with a union security provision are the Beck objector fees (dues minus political expenditures).

    So, I hope the two of you will forgive the minor quibbles I so poorly articulated the first time around. I also wish that you would share your experiences with others as the Senate takes up this proposed legislation. The AFL-CIO has a well-oiled PR machine working right now. Among the talking points they are using are: (a) workers always earn more under a union contract; and (b) union activists almost never intimidate people. It sounds like the two of you can refute those points quite effectively.

  • I'm of the opinion that workers should have a right to unionize within their own company, but industry-wide unions (as you guys are rightly pointing out) have more power than is appropriate. You guys know more about it than me, is that just a weird assessment?

    BTW, Warren, finally fixed your link on my blog. sorry about that.

    Come see us.

  • Workers already have every right to form unions. What they lack (in sensible states) is the power to compel membership in the union by other workers who don't want to join.

    Secret ballots allow workers who don't want to join the union to vote against it without fear of being beaten to death, having their houses burned down, or having their wives and children murdered in their beds by the union goons. Card-check is simply a way of giving thugs access to a handy list of noncompliant workers.

    Of course, if unions lacked coercive monopoly powers, the benefit of getting one installed wouldn't be so great that backers would feel it was worth killing innocent people in order to make it happen.