How Unions Coerce Workers

How Unions Coerce Workers

[Update: This discussion continues here.]

The On Labor blog has thoughts from Jack Goldsmith and Benjamin Sachs on my article "Why Conservatives Should Love Alt-Labor." I'd like to briefly reply to Sachs, who claims that traditional unions (which I compared unfavorably to alt-labor) are not coercive.

He writes:

VerBruggen's claim of coercion here depends on the premise that some employees of a unionized firm -- those who are covered by the collective bargaining agreement but who oppose the union -- involuntarily agree to be bound by the collective bargaining agreement.  This construction of voluntariness, however, is out of place in the American legal system.  It’s out of place because any worker who does not like a collective bargaining agreement, or who would rather attempt to bargain an individual contract with her employer, is free to seek employment in any of the nonunion firms in the labor market -- firms that today account for about 93% of the jobs in the private sector.  In our legal system, as long as employees have the freedom to choose between union and nonunion firms -- which they do -- accepting employment at a union firm constitutes voluntary acceptance of the terms and conditions of employment at that firm (so long, of course, as the terms and conditions are otherwise legal).

To understand how unions coerce workers, imagine you're a non-union worker who has taken a job on purely voluntary terms -- your employer made an offer and you accepted. Then, a union tries to organize your workplace. You vote against unionization because you don't want them to negotiate on your behalf and you don't want dues or fees taken out of your paycheck. Your employer doesn't want the union, either. But the union wins the election.

At this point, the union is legally entitled to negotiate the terms of your contract with your employer on your behalf -- negotiations that neither you nor the employer want to take place. And once a contract is signed, the union might be legally entitled to collect dues or fees from you. Your only options are to quit your job -- which, again, you took on terms that were and remain acceptable to both you and your employer -- or to accept the terms of a contract that neither you nor your employer would have signed absent government union policies. I don't see how this isn't coercive, both to your employer and to you.

Certainly, it's true that once a workplace has gone union, any new hires will sign up knowing full well that they will be represented by a union. But even then the range of job options available will have been changed by government coercion (Milton Friedman argued that by raising wages at their own workplaces, unions drive down wages elsewhere, for example), and the system will still coerce the employer, who must continue negotiating with the union for new contracts against his will.

Robert VerBruggen is editor of RealClearPolicy. Twitter: @RAVerBruggen

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