On March 9, governor (and likely presidential candidate) Scott Walker signed legislation making Wisconsin America’s 25th “right to work” state. Anti-union conservatives rejoiced. They were joined by some self-described libertarians.
But “right to work” isn’t libertarian. In fact, it’s the exact opposite of libertarian. It abridges freedom of association and right to contract for both unions and employers.
The National Labor Relations Act of 1935 (the “Wagner Act”) was the first major government intrusion into American labor relations. It provided for elections in which workers could choose unions to represent them and negotiate contracts with employers.
Because Wagner was crafted by employers and big union bosses, its provisions were designed to empower employers and big union bosses, not workers. Its “closed shop” and “one union per workplace” rules benefited the workplace-focused AFL and CIO unions (which later merged) at the expense of unions which aimed to organize by craft or industry (like IWW). Its “no wildcat strikes” and “no sympathy strikes or boycotts” rules benefited employers who knew they could pass on higher union labor costs to consumers and were willing to do so in exchange for predictable labor costs.
Wagner was bad enough. But then came “Taft-Hartley,” the Labor Management Relations Act of 1947. Taft-Hartley leaves the Wagner framework in place, but allows states to adopt “right to work” laws which forbid “closed shops” (even if unions and employers both want exclusivity), while simultaneously requiring employers and unions to treat non-union workers as if they are union workers.
Under “right to work,” an employer can’t require an employee to join a union as a condition of employment … but if the employer has a contract with a union, he has to give that non-union worker the same pay, benefits and disciplinary protections as the contract specifies for union members.
Under “right to work,” a union can’t collect dues from non-members in workplaces it represents … but it’s required to represent those non-members in contract negotiations, disciplinary proceedings, etc. exactly as if they were dues-paying members.
The Wagner Act restricts freedom in labor relations. That’s why libertarians want it repealed.
Taft-Hartley, aka “right to work,” restricts freedom in labor relations even more in a ham-handed attempt to bust organized labor. That’s why libertarians want it repealed as well.
If legislation was subject to truth in advertising laws, “right to work” would be labeled “right to freeload on employers and unions.”
Thomas L. Knapp is director and senior news analyst at the William Lloyd Garrison Center for Libertarian Advocacy Journalism (thegarrisoncenter.org). He lives and works in north central Florida.