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Is There a Right to Unionize?

Mises Daily: Monday, July 23, 2012 by

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[Day 26 of Robert Wenzel's 30-day reading list that will lead you to become a knowledgeable libertarian, this article originally appeared on LewRockwell.com, January 1, 2004.]

I resist the notion that we have a "right to unionize" or that unionization is akin, or, worse, an implication of, the right to freely associate. Yes, theoretically, a labor organization could limit itself to organizing a mass quit unless they got what they wanted. That would indeed be an implication of the law of free association.

But every union with which I am familiar reserves the right to employ violence (that is, to initiate violence) against competing workers — "scabs" — whether in a "blue-collar way" by beating them up, or in a "white collar way" by getting laws passed compelling employers to deal with them, and not with the scabs. (Does anyone know of a counter example to this? If you know of any, I'd be glad to hear of it. I once thought I had found one: The Christian Labor Association of Canada. But based on an interview with them I can say that while they eschew "blue-collar" aggression, they support the "white collar" version).

But what of the fact that there are many counter examples: unions that have not actually engaged in the initiation of violence? Moreover, there are even people associated for many years with organized labor who have never witnessed the outbreak of actual violence.

Let me clarify my position. My opposition is not merely to violence, but, rather, to "violence, or the threat of violence." My position is that, often, no actual violence is needed, if the threat is serious enough, which, I contend, always obtains under unionism, at least as practiced in the United States and Canada.

Probably, the IRS has never engaged in the actual use of physical violence in its entire history. (It is mostly composed of nerds, not physically aggressive people.) This is because it relies on the courts and police of the US government who have overwhelming power. But it would be superficial to contend that the IRS does not engage in "violence, or the threat of violence." This holds true also for the state trooper who stops you and gives you a ticket. They are, and are trained to be, exceedingly polite. Yet "violence, or the threat of violence" permeates their entire relationship with you.

I do not deny, moreover, that sometimes management also engages in "violence, or the threat of violence." My only contention is that it is possible to point to numerous cases where they do not, while the same is impossible for organized labor, at least in the countries I am discussing.

In my view, the threat emanating from unions is objective, not subjective. It is the threat, in the old blue-collar days, that any competing worker, a "scab," would be beat up if he tried to cross a picket line, and, in the modern white collar days, that any employer who fires a striking employee union member and substitutes for him a replacement worker as a permanent hire, will be found in violation of various labor laws. (Why, by the way, is it not "discriminatory," and "hateful," to describe workers willing to take less pay, and to compete with unionized labor, as "scabs"? Should not this be considered on a par with using the "N" word for blacks, or the "K" word for Jews?)

Suppose a small scrawny hold-up man confronts a big, burly football-player-type guy and demands his money, threatening that if the big guy does not give it up, the little guy will kick his butt. I call this an objective threat, and I don't care if the big guy laughs himself silly in reaction. Second scenario. Same as the first, only this time the little guy whips out a pistol, and threatens to shoot the big guy unless he hands over his money.

Now, there are two kinds of big guys. One will feel threatened, and hand over his money. The second will attack the little guy (in self-defense, I contend). Perhaps he is feeling omnipotent. Perhaps he is wearing a bullet-proof vest. It does not matter. The threat is a threat is a threat, regardless of the reaction of the big guy, regardless of his inner psychological response.

Now let us return to labor management relations. The union objectively threatens scabs, and employers who hire them. This, nowadays, is purely a matter of law, not psychological feelings on anyone's part. In contrast, while it cannot be denied that sometimes employers initiate violence against workers, they need not necessarily do it, qua employer. (Often, however, such violence is in self-defense.)

This is similar to the point I made about the pimp in my book Defending the Undefendable: For this purpose, I don't care if each and every pimp has in fact initiated violence. Nor does it matter if they do it every hour on the hour. This is not a necessary characteristic of being a pimp. Even if there are no nonviolent pimps in existence, we can still imagine one such. Even if all employers always initiated violence against employees, still, we can imagine employers who do not. In very sharp contrast indeed, because of labor legislation they all support, we cannot even imagine unionized labor that does not threaten the initiation of violence.

Murray N. Rothbard was bitterly opposed to unions. This emanated from two sources. First, as a libertarian theoretician, because organized labor necessarily threatens violence (see Man, Economy and State, pp. 620–632). Second, based on personal harm suffered at their hands by his family (see An Enemy of the State: The Life of Murray N. Rothbard by Justin Raimondo, pp. 59–61).

We must never succumb to the siren song of union thuggery.