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Right-To-Work Laws and the Modern Classical-Liberal Tradition

My TGIF column this week at The Future of Freedom Foundation, “Right-To-Work Laws and the Modern Classical-Liberal Tradition,” points out that an earlier generation of 20th-century libertarian economists opposed right-to-work laws. These include Milton Friedman and Percy L. Greaves Jr., a close associate of both Ludwig von Mises and Leonard E. Read, founder of the Foundation for Economic Education.

Friedman compared RTW to antidiscrimination laws, regarding them both as unjustified interference with the rights of employers to hire whomever they choose. Greaves saw RTW as inconsistent with markets and freedom because it forbids employers and unions from reaching a particular kind of voluntary agreement, namely, one that requires workers to compensate a union for representational services, as a condition of employment. Greaves correctly argued that RTW was only an issue because of earlier government intervention in the form of the Wagner Act, which requires an employer to deal with a union, and all workers to financially support it, if a majority of workers designate it as their bargaining agent. Greaves said that the free-market response to the compulsion in Wagner is repeal of Wagner, not further government intervention through an outlawing of employer-union exclusive contracts.

The irony is that Wagner plus the 1947 Taft-Hartley amendments constitute a vast pro-business program to tame the labor movement. Instead of (threats of) sudden wildcat strikes, sympathy boycotts, and secondary strikes, the federal labor-law regime substituted cooling-off periods, compulsory arbitration, and many other restrictions. “Responsible” labor leaders were brought to the table as junior partners in the corporate state and were deputized to police their members’ compliance with the negotiated contracts. No wonder the Wobblies hated Wagner-Taft-Hartley. RTW was a way to avoid throwing the baby out with the bathwater. I seriously doubt that big employers would want to get rid of Wagner-Taft-Hartley if they had the chance.

Read the article here.