libertarians, violence, and unions

Whenever unions are in the news–as recently, in Michigan–the concept of “union violence” draws enormous attention. Google News finds 137,000 recent mentions of that phrase, mostly under headlines like “When Thuggery is OK,” and “Union Violence in the Age of Obama.”

I am not going to be able to shed any light on the empirical questions: how much violence is committed by unions–or against them? Nor do I want to address the question of motivations: Why do conservative and libertarian commentators give so much attention to allegations of union violence? But I think a philosophical argument is being made against unions as intrinsically coercive organizations. If that argument is mistaken–as I believe it is–we should be able to rebut it, and doing so is valuable.

(The following discussion draws on an article of mine entitled “The Libertarian Critique of Labor Unions,” Philosophy & Public Policy Quarterly, vol. 21, no. 4 [Fall 2001]. I cannot find it online, so this is a PDF of the preprint.)

In 1959, the great libertarian Friedrich Hayek asserted that unions “are the one institution where government has signally failed in its first task, that of preventing coercion of men by other men–and by coercion I do not mean primarily the coercion of employers but the coercion of workers by their fellow workers.” This is the argument that circulates among libertarians, although it is by no means a consensus libertarian position.

To spell it out more fully, we might say: Except when a few firms monopolize the available jobs (a situation called “monopsony”), individuals are free to contract with employers on terms they mutually accept. This is what the Republicans of Abe Lincoln’s day called “free labor.” If a group of workers decide to contract jointly, that is their right. But if any workers or prospective workers do not want to join this group (which we’ll call a union), they must be free to remain independent–otherwise, they will suffer from majority tyranny. If the union chooses to strike, it may not block any dissenters from working.

To be sure, majority tyranny is also a serious drawback of democratic states, which have armies, police, and jails behind them. But that is not a fair debating point against libertarians, who spend most of their time worrying about coercive states. If, following Hayek, they also criticize unions, they are being consistent. Even if a union is very popular, their concern is for the individual who does not endorse its positions.

This is the argument that deserves rebuttal, and it is a philosophical rather than an empirical position. In other words, we cannot rebut it by asserting that coercion by unions is rare, or that violence against unions is more common. I think those claims are true, but the libertarian is–appropriately–concerned about principles. By analogy, we have found that the number of eligible citizens who were blocked from voting by photo ID laws was almost undetectably small in 2012. But that doesn’t make it OK to block any eligible citizens from voting.

How should one rebut the libertarian argument? I would suggest several paths:

1. Libertarians should tolerate the legal forms of pressure used by unions. It is illegal for a union forcibly to block individuals from working or to threaten force or physical violence. The state must (and does) enforce laws against such violence. What a union can do is to establish a picket line and yell at individuals who cross it. Some people might call such verbal abuse “violence.” But libertarians should be the last to do so. Whether in the context of campus speech codes, protests at abortion clinics, the pornography industry, or a strike, libertarians should insist on a strict distinction between physical violence, threats, and coercion (on one hand), and verbal expressions (on the other). A picket line is an expression of both free speech and assembly, and to label such speech “violence” is to threaten the civil liberties of the union members.

2. Unions enhance rather than restrict individual rights. Within a union, members have legally enforceable rights to express their views, to advocate, to form caucuses and associations, and to vote. These are individual rights that are meaningless without the union. They are closer to what Benjamin Constant called the liberty of the ancients rather than the liberty of the moderns. They are rights to “deliberate, in a public space …, to vote laws, pronounce decisions, examine the accounts, actions, and management of officials, to compel them to appear before the whole people, to accuse them, to condemn or acquit them.”

3. Unions promote political pluralism and countervailing force. We can debate whether a libertarian utopia is feasible and desirable, but we don’t live in one. We live under a powerful and pervasive state that not only influences corporations and markets, but is constantly used by them. So the employer with whom an individual laborer contracts is not a free individual; it is a corporation that has likely been regulated, subsidized, and protected by the state. One could imagine stripping the state of most of its powers, but that is not happening. As long as the state remains influential, liberty is best served by pluralism: by setting many different interests in peaceful conflict. Killing unions, the main countervailing force to industry, will reduce pluralism–and thus liberty.

Of course, states and companies are not the only powers that threaten liberty. Still arguing within the classical liberal tradition, Mill and Tocqueville emphasized that public opinion, conformity, and cultural assumptions are powerful and problematic influences. Unions counter the prevailing ethos of our post-industrial corporate culture. In my article, I quote labor lawyer Thomas Geoghegan on union meetings: “paunchy, middle-aged men, slugging down cans of beer, come to hold hands, touch each other, and sing ‘Solidarity Forever.’ O.K., that hardly ever happens, but most people in this business, somewhere, at some point, see it once, and it is the damnedest un-American thing you will ever see.” I don’t expect libertarians to like the “un-American” ethos of unions, and Tom Geoghegan was joking about that. What libertarians should like is the mind-opening alternative that unions create.

Individual liberties are important, but they are not the only principles we should honor. I want the right to contract my own labor. But it is not the only good, for me or for anyone else. Dignity, social bonds and solidarities, and welfare and security are also fundamental human needs. Unions–when properly accountable to their own members and policed by the state–enhance those goods even if they constrain individual rights to contract. (This last point, of course, is not compatible with libertarianism or classical liberalism but marks a point of disagreement about fundamental principles.)

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About Peter

Associate Dean for Research and the Lincoln Filene Professor of Citizenship and Public Affairs at Tufts University's Tisch College of Civic Life. Concerned about civic education, civic engagement, and democratic reform in the United States and elsewhere.