Recent budget crises in Wisconsin, Indiana, and other states have unleashed a renewed debate over the power of unions and “right to work” laws. Unfortunately, both sides of the debate are guilty of numerous equivocations, misrepresentations, and errors. And, at the end of the day, both advocate the use of government coercion to intervene in the employer/employee relationship.
Unions have attacked the “right to work” movement as an assault on collective bargaining rights, correctly arguing that such a law “brings government interference to private enterprise…. In effect, government limits the right of employers to set the terms and conditions of employment by telling companies and their workers what they can and can’t bargain over.” What the unions don’t tell us is, an employer is guilty of “unfair labor practices” if he refuses “to bargain collectively with the representatives of his employees.” Federal legislation prohibits employers and employees from individually negotiating terms of employment if the employee is represented by a union, thereby “telling companies and their workers what they can and can’t bargain over.” In response to this interference, the proponents of “right to work” laws propose further intervention.
For their part, the advocates of “right to work” state that a “Right to Work law guarantees that no person can be compelled, as a condition of employment, to join or not to join, nor to pay dues to a labor union.” While this is true, it is also disingenuous. “To be compelled” means to act under force or the threat of force. It means that one must act contrary to his own judgment, hence the need for compulsion. As an example, if you go into the grocery store, you can buy steak or chicken. The choice is yours and you can act as you judge best. However, if the butcher threatens to beat you up if you buy chicken, the threat of force prevents you from acting on your own judgment. You are compelled to act contrary to your judgment, unless you want to receive a beating.
Every employer establishes conditions of employment, such as education, skills, experience, work hours, performance standards, and more. An employer should be free to establish any conditions he chooses, including those that are irrational and irrelevant to the job, such as hair color, height, or favorite football team. If an employee finds those conditions unacceptable, he is free to find another job. Just as the employer is free to act on his judgment—to establish conditions of employment—the employee is equally free to accept or reject those conditions.
If an employer believes that unionized employees are beneficial to his business, and he wants to make union membership a condition of employment, he should be free to act on his judgment. At the same time, if he decides that he does not want to negotiate with union leaders, he should also be free to do so. In other words, government should not be involved in the employee/employer relationship, except to enforce contracts that are freely entered.
Right to work laws prohibit employers from acting on their judgment. For example, the website for the Attorney General of Texas states that employees “may not be required to join or pay dues to a union as a condition of employment.” Employers who act on their own judgment in defiance of the dictates of the state are subject to prosecution.
The solution to the power of labor unions is not more controls on employers. The solution is to repeal legislation that forces employers to negotiate with union leaders. The solution is for government to recognize and protect the rights of employees and employers to freely negotiate the terms of employment.