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Unions Want Freedom of Association — But Only for Themselves

Tags Bureaucracy and RegulationLabor and Wages


When unions are in their justifying-their-existence mode, they quickly turn to false claims, such as asserting that higher union wages benefit other workers. In fact, unions actually actually reduce the availability of union jobs, and force workers elsewhere, increasing labor supply and decreasing wages for those jobs. At a more basic level, though, they justify themselves as exemplars of the right of freedom of association, so that anything which restricts them violates freedom of association.

The union version of freedom of association is that workers are free to associate with them, under unique government-granted privileges, including monopoly representation of all workers based on a one-time election. As Brenda Smith of the AFT put it, “Exclusivity for a union with majority support…is democracy…It allows employees to select their representative freely, without coercion from the employer. It allows them to amplify their voice through collective action under our constitutionally protected right to freedom of association.” But such union freedom of association rights are sharply inconsistent with universal rights to freedom of association.

Others’ freedom of association are violated in multiple ways. Such union “rights” take away workers’ freedom to be associated with a different union, their freedom to choose alternative forms of group representation, such as voluntary unions, and their freedom to represent themselves in negotiations with employers. It takes away workers’ freedom to associate with non-union employers or to resolve workplace issues directly with them, rather than forcing arrangements exclusively though the union. It takes away the freedom of employers to not associate with unions or to solely employ workers who have no union involvement. In addition, in heavily unionized industries, it undermines consumers’ freedom to associate with (buy from) lower cost, non-union producers (or, as taxpayers, to have government services provided at a lower cost in the case of government unions), if they choose. In other words, unions’ freedom of association means one-way freedom for them to coerce others. Those who don't wish to associate with unions, however, are not entitled to this same freedom. 

However, a fundamental or inalienable human right must be one that all possess. If one party’s exercise of a right prevents a second party’s exercise of the same right, it is a special privilege given only to the first party, not a right. If the second party is required to accept the first party’s offer of association on the terms they offer, the second party is not free to choose his associations. Freedom of association would be a right of the first party, but denied to the second party. A fundamental right to freedom of association can only mean freedom to associate with those who also choose to associate with us — i.e. voluntary association on both sides. That includes freedom to refuse association with others against one’s will.

Consider a suitor asking to marry a woman. His freedom of association does not deny her equal freedom. She can say no. Similarly, a student application to a university does not compel that university to accept the student. But the union version of freedom of association would require those they want to associate with to say yes.

Unions manage to divert attention from the logical contradictions in their version of freedom of association by focusing discussion on living up to the freedom of association of those workers who choose to be members. That often goes a long way to defuse opposition, in the name of democracy. However, careful thinking about that reasoning reveals it as perhaps the strongest argument against union freedom of association claims.

As James Sherk has documented, not a single current worker in many unions ever voted to select that union, and vanishingly few current workers voted for them in other instances. In fact, it may be the case that very few unions have been voted for by a majority of the current workers they represent. That destroys any claim that the union advances current workers’ freedom of association.

How could that be? Labor law and interpretation requires only a majority those who voted (not a majority of the number of workers) in a single certification election to allow unions to impose exclusive union representation on all workers. After that, no further elections need ever be held. So new workers need never be given a vote on the union. This is also true for anyone who changes their mind after their initial vote.

As a consequence, when a workplace was unionized long ago, virtually no one who voted in the certification election still works there. How many of its current workers voted for UAW unionization of GM’s Michigan plants in 1937, 80 years ago? How many current government union workers voted to certify their unions in the 1960s and 70s? Zero, in many cases. Current union members have therefore often had no effective input into who represents them. Consequently their unions even deny freedom of association to the majority of their current members, the one group one whose freedom of association could plausibly be consistent with union freedom of association claims. That is, unions’ destruction of others’ freedom of association extends to almost everyone, so that such a right cannot justify their current existence and power.

Some of restrictions of others’ freedom of association due to unionization could be addressed by having regular union certification elections. Alternatively, decertification elections are also possible. But unions have managed to hamstring both options both options, revealing that workers’ freedom of association was more an intended victim than their intended motive.

Union members can try to change their union representatives in internal elections, if they are unhappy with the current leadership. But even if they successfully oust their leadership, since the local is subordinate to the national union, the national union can neutralize it by putting the local under its trusteeship and leadership. That is, even when unhappy workers “win,” they can lose.

What about regularly occurring union certification elections, an idea supported by more than 4 out of 5 union households? Unions never offer such an option voluntarily, which, itself, says a great deal about their commitment to their workers’ freedom of association. However, such elections can be forced on them. Wisconsin not long ago mandated that government unions face re-certification elections. Many did not even file for re-election, revealing how badly they knew they had served members. In other cases, membership fell dramatically (AFSCME membership fell by over half) or dues were cut to maintain membership, as unions had to finally compete for members.

Decertification as an option is also strewn with restrictions. It requires signatures from 30 percent of all employees in a unit (versus 50 percent of votes cast for certification, which can be a far lower hurdle), within a one-month time frame which is only open once every three years, and those signatures cannot be gathered while employees are being paid or in work areas. Further, union members who support decertification are commonly expelled from the union (but not relieved of paying for their “representation services”) giving them still less freedom of association. Such restrictions show why decertification is such a faulty escape valve for poorly represented workers.

In sum, not only do unions deny rather than empower members’ freedom of association, they have made it all but impossible to reverse the abuse. As John Ransom summarized it, “for unions, freedom of association means workers are given only one representative, one association, one, non-dissenting voice carefully following the party line.” Given the importance FOA for all, (as Alexis de Tocqueville wrote, “The most natural privilege of man, next to the right of acting for himself, is that of combining his exertions with those of his fellow creatures and of acting in common with them. The right of association therefore appears to me almost as inalienable in its nature as the right of personal liberty. No legislator can attack it without impairing the foundations of society”), this reveals unions’ freedom of association claims as almost totally baseless. Consequently, not only is unions’ supposed justification in freedom of association (which Thomas Jefferson recognized provided “the guarantee to everyone of a free exercise of his industry and the fruits acquired by it”) false; it is a contradiction in terms.


Gary Galles

Gary M. Galles is a Professor of Economics at Pepperdine University and an adjunct scholar at the Ludwig von Mises Institute. He is also a research fellow at the Independent Institute, a member of the Foundation for Economic Education faculty network, and a member of the Heartland Institute Board of Policy Advisors.

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