the right to strike

Yesterday, Alexander Gourevitch from Brown University spoke on “The Right to Strike.” I won’t try to summarize (or scoop) the argument of his forthcoming paper, except to say that Gourevitch uses an account of oppression to give a strong defense of the right to strike, and he squarely addresses the hard issue. Successful strikes often require a degree of coercion in the form of picket lines, sit-ins, work-stoppages that close the firm, strong moral pressure on potential scabs, etc. Many liberal political theorists, American jurists, and European social democrats defend unions and acknowledge the right to strike but are squeamish about the coercive aspect. They either deny that coercion occurs or argue that strikes are only acceptable when free of all coercion. Gourevitch defends the coercive aspect of strikes–although not as an absolute right.

I would reach the same destination from a different starting point. I would begin with the premise that human beings have the right to create, design, and govern groups. Among the many types of groups that we design are governments (at all levels and scales), companies (privately held or publicly traded), and unions. Any of these three can allow or prevent an individual from working in a particular job. The government can regulate or legislate against the job or a category of workers, the firm can refuse to hire or fire an employee (or close the whole shop), and the union can strike. I begin with no assumption that any of these acts is more–or less–legitimate than the others. Governments, companies, and unions can be good or bad. They can do the right or the wrong thing. It all depends on the details.

In particular, it depends on how they are organized internally and what effects they have on outsiders (including natural systems as well as people). Assessing their internal structures and their consequences is controversial because it raises all the basic questions of justice.

For example, it you are a participatory democrat, you will value institutions just to the degree that they are internal democracies. Companies seem the least promising candidates, although democratic firms do exist. Both unions and governments range from highly democratic to highly authoritarian. Before you acknowledge the justice of a coercive strike, you will ask whether the union is democratic (and whether it is more or less democratic than the state that seeks to police it). You may embed in the definition of “democratic” some openness to outsiders, such as workers who are not already members of the union.

If, on the other hand, you are libertarian, you will value institutions just to the degree that the reflect individual, voluntary choice. Governments are the least promising, because very few citizens literally and actively consent to be governed. Governments are only legitimate to the degree that they create space for private agreements. Companies and unions are both potentially legitimate, but unions may be less so, to the extent that they coerce. Hayek claimed 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.”

For my own part, I am deeply pluralist. I believe in the value of maintaining a diverse set of institutional arrangements as checks against each other and as manifestations of human plurality and creativity. I am happy to see non-democratic institutions (e.g., the Catholic Church), strongly democratic ones, and many other forms. But I am not a relativist. I think that some organizations are better than others, and some combinations are more desirable than others. It’s just that an account of what makes organizations good must be nuanced and pluralist. One size doesn’t fit all.

On these grounds, I would defend unions as human creations that contribute to a pluralist public sphere. And I would accept that they will act coercively–within appropriate limits–when they strike. I am not positively enthusiastic about coercion, but I’d stress that states and companies also coerce. If you want (or need) to work, and a union has closed your workplace, then you have a complaint; but you also have a complaint if the company fires you arbitrarily or the state throws you in jail. Stronger unions make the second two forms of pervasive injustice less likely. A world with states, companies, and unions is more just than a world with just the first two.

See also my “The Legitimacy of Labor Unions” (2001), which is too moderate, China teaches the value of political pluralism, and should all institutions be democratic?

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.
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