One Last Thought on Unions and Coercion

One Last Thought on Unions and Coercion

In a reply to my previous post, Benjamin Sachs gets to the heart of our disagreement -- we simply define the word "coercion" differently. He writes:

[Say] you start working in a nonunion setting at a wage of $15 per hour, and then the employer lowers the wage to $12 per hour.  Are you “coerced” into accepting the new wage because it was imposed after you started working and because your only options are to quit or accept the new term?  No.  We don’t consider this coercion because there are acceptable choices available to you.  You have the option to reject the [$12] per hour wage and seek work elsewhere and thus a decision to stay and earn $12 per hour is a voluntary decision.

So, again, VerBruggen’s argument that unionism is coercive depends on the fact that the government is involved in facilitating unionization.  It’s true, of course, that federal labor law alters the choices that employees have to make.  Labor law means that some employees – who would have preferred to remain nonunion – will have to choose between a union and nonunion workplace.  But that’s not coercion, at least on the conventional understanding of it.  Coercion implies a lack of alternatives or a lack of acceptable alternatives, not simply altered choice sets.  And even with federal facilitation of unionization, 93% of the jobs in the private sector remain open to those employees who don’t want collective bargaining.  That is certainly an acceptable alternative to remaining in a firm that unionizes – even granting government intervention to facilitate the unionization process.

He's abolutely right: My argument that unionization is coercive depends on the fact that the government is involved. If you work for a company at $15 an hour and there's no contract saying your pay can't be cut, you are not being coerced if your employer cuts your pay; you were not entitled to keep receiving $15 an hour, your employer was not obligated to keep paying $15 an hour, and you are free to seek employment elsewhere. But I don't think it's strange at all to say that you (and your employer) are being "coerced" if the government steps in and authorizes a union to void your contract and negotiate a new one on your behalf. In one case, private parties are coming to their own mutually acceptable arrangements and then abiding by them; in the other, the government is helping to alter those arrangements through the force -- the coercion -- of law.

I called the article "Why Conservatives Should Love Alt-Labor" for a reason. I was laying out what frustrates conservatives and libertarians about unions and explaining why those factors are not present in alt-labor, and thus I used the word "coercion" as libertarians and conservatives often use it: to denote the intrusion of government force into private arrangements. There isn't much sense in debating the "correct" definition of the word (in my years as an editor I've learned that such debates are basically pointless), but libertarians and conservatives will find Sachs's argument -- that if private decisionmaking can put a person in Situation X without being "coercive," the government can step in and cause Situation X without being "coercive," too -- rather odd.

Robert VerBruggen is editor of RealClearPolicy. Twitter: @RAVerBruggen

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