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Wednesday, March 5, 2014

A Libertarian case for unions

Today Representative Kim Williams has an op-ed in the WNJ about unions and "right to work."

(Excursus:  it is a tribute to how badly I hate the new layout of both the paper and the website that I didn't even see this piece until somebody put it up on Facebook this evening.  Food for thought.)

It's pretty important for me, as a Libertarian candidate, to note that I take a left-Libertarian, almost market anarchist stand on this issue, following along the lines of mutualist Kevin Carson, and that I find the rights of association among workers to be just as important as the prerogatives of management.

(Readers interested in theory are referred to Carson's Labor Struggle:  A Free Market Model.)

I've served as a union grievance officer (2 years) and a union president (6 years), albeit in a labor organization nearly unique (but still allowed) in Delaware.  The DSU faculty is an open shop.  Unit members do not have to join or pay dues to benefit from the contracts we negotiate and enforce; as a union we have to earn that 0.75% of their salaries.  (We currently have about an 85% membership rate.)

Given all of the statist tools that have been given to corporate and business entities with which to drive labor prices down, some form of labor organization remains absolutely necessary in order for the workers to be able to pursue their equally justified agenda of raising their own salaries and benefits to the greatest degree possible, and (a factor most writers do not consider) to both improve working conditions and defend their unit members from arbitrary and capricious conduct.

Libertarians love contracts more than laws, but contracts mean nothing without an ability to enforce the terms.  You don't want to know the number of times (not just in my own organization) that I have watched managers blatantly violate agreements they had made with their own workers regarding sick leave, or hours, or working conditions, or the timely payment of salaries owed.  An individual worker facing a huge corporate organization has little or no chance at redress, even in the courts.  Perhaps even especially in the courts.  An active union can help balance the scales.

Unfortunately, the passage of Wagner and Taft-Hartley almost fatally crippled unions by taking away a wide variety of non-traditional strike related activities, and the current public meme that police officers firefighters, teachers etc. should not have the right to strike is one more assault on the ability of workers to exercise their right to free association and mutual contract.

Maybe I'm too radical for Delaware:  I do not believe that the State should have the power to prohibit anyone from striking.  The multiple scenarios of societal disaster that would occur from such strikes are highly overplayed by a huge public relations/propaganda machine that (you guessed it) operates at the behest of corporation and State.

"Right to work" zones are nothing more than attempts by companies to get the State to forcibly give them preferential treatment in the form of special powers to nullify the workers' right of free association.  They are, effectively, more corporate welfare.

A true free-market model of labor relations would find companies having to deal directly with their employees in order to realize a dynamic that makes it possible for both sides to prosper.

Sure, there is a meme circulating out there that "union greed" nearly killed the American automobile industry.  Horse puckey.  What nearly killed the American automobile industry (and what should have killed at least one of the too-big-to-fail "Big Three" a few years back) is a track record of idiotic decisions about product lines by the managers of the American automobile industry.

Anybody remember the disaster that was the Chevy Vega in the 1970s?  Or any car produced by Oldsmobile during the last ten years of that line's existence?  Organized labor didn't design the damn cars that fell apart or that nobody would buy; workers on the line just built them to spec.

Here's the bottom line:  there is a coercive aspect to unions that Libertarians tend to dislike, and too often in the blurry line that conservatives attempt to use to fuzz over the difference between the two ideologies, the Libertarian position is simplistically portrayed as "anti-union."

The reality is that since Wagner, Taft-Hartley, and a variety of other Statist/corporate mechanisms tilted 98% of the economically and socially coercive power toward corporations, I'm more than willing to start by scaling back corporate coercive power until the dynamic is a hell of a lot closer to 50-50, and then we work on both ends of the issue at the same time.

We've got a lot of years to go before we bring that equation back into balance, thanks to courts and legislators who "gave away the farm" while cheerfully pocketing all those union campaign contributions.

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