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More on Unions and Freedom of Association


Space limitations for my “Labor Unions and Freedom of Association” Daily Article today required that some of the references to the clear understanding of the issues by individualists connected to the Austrian school of economics had to be edited out. But three of those contributions, from Auberon Herbert, Sylvester Petro, and Friedrich Hayek, are worth noting here.

Auberon Herbert, in his “The True Line of Deliverance, written over a century ago, wrote:

[M]ake the free‑trade footing universal for all. I do not mean that A and B should accept work on any terms other than those that they themselves approve; but that they should throw no dam round their labor by preventing C from…accepting terms which they decline. That is the true labor principle, universal individual choice…leave every man free to settle his own price of labor…In the case of a serious disagreement between an employer and his men, the union would remove all such men as wished to leave…But there would be no effort to prevent the employer obtaining new hands…There would be no strike, no picketing, no coercion of other men, no stigmatizing another fellow‑workman…because he was ready to take a lower wage. All this would be left perfectly free for each man to do according to what was right in his own judgment. If the employer had behaved badly, the true penalty would fall upon him; those who wished to leave his service would do so…That would be at once the true penalty and the true remedy. Further than that in labor disputes has no man a right to go. He can throw up his own work, but he has no right to prevent others accepting that work.

Sylvester Petro, in his 1957 The Labor Policy of the Free Society, also wrote extensively about this issue from an Austrian perspective:


The operating principles of the free society are in no sense prejudiced or impaired by worker organizations as such. Quite the contrary. The right of free, voluntary association is a right which derives clearly and directly from those principles…the free society’s basic principles accord to workers the right to join together and to work in common…

The only limitation upon the voluntary association in the free society is the standard limitation placed upon the activities of all men in such a society: the voluntary association as a separate entity may not invade the property rights of persons, it may not engage in violent, coercive, or fraudulent conduct.

Trade unions in a free society embody the right of working men, shared with every other member of society, to join together in the pursuit of common interests. As a private association of men, the trade union enjoys a status no different than that occupied by any other private association…Trade unions misconceive their role if they assume either that they must or that they may use compulsion or coercion..

The theory of the free society only prohibits to men in trade unions the invasion of the property rights of other member of society. Beyond that there are no limitations…If men wish to form or join a union, they are free to do so. If, having combined in order to promote their own economic and other interests, they decide to withhold their labor in concert, they are free to do that, too, so long as they do not invade the property rights of others by their concerted action. They are free, in short, to regulate their own conduct in any way they see fit. The free society declares to trade unions only that they may not regulate the conduct or impair the rights of others.

We see the same understanding from Friedrich Hayek, in his 1960 The Constitution of Liberty:

Whatever true coercive power unions may be able to wield over employers is a consequence of this primary power of coercing other workers…power to exact unwilling support. Neither the right of voluntary agreement between workers nor even their right to withhold their services in concert is in question.

There has been a great deal of self-interested rhetoric designed to distort the idea of freedom of association to justify American unions, which in fact have their origins in government coercion and denial of similar rights to others. But for anyone who seriously considers what those in the Austrian school have done to untwist and clarify these issues, as in so many other areas, there is no reason to be taken in by the misrepresentations disguising the real issues.

Gary M. Galles is a professor of economics at Pepperdine University. He is the author of The Apostle of Peace: The Radical Mind of Leonard Read.


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