Equitable Commerce for the Worker

On Tuesday, May 17, 2011, Reuters reported that Tea Party groups “in states like Wisconsin, Indiana, New Hampshire and Ohio have pushed ‘right to work’ bills to take on the unions.” Such laws are making news this year on the heels of the controversy sparked months ago in Wisconsin.

When the Badger State’s Governor, Scott Walker, proposed elimination of collective bargaining for state workers, thousands protested in Madison. Besides precipitating legal battles and public protests, Walker’s tendentious law has stimulated interest in labor issues generally, provoking all of the standard right-wing panegyrics on Big Business.

Defenders of supposed “free enterprise” have predictably damned unions and hailed “right to work” statutes as keepers of the American way. The federal government’s labor law regime under the Taft-Hartley Act left significant power to states to make their own rules, and nearly half have exercised that discretion and passed “right to work” laws. Since these laws prohibit employers and unions from contracting to make union membership a condition of employment, the knee-jerk response among many Tea Partiers a knee-jerk response is in their favor.

Workers shouldn’t be forced, the argument goes, to join a union, and to thereby be compelled to pay dues for things they may not support. But while individual rights are apparently the grounds for opposing the “closed shop,” they apparently don’t extend to those voluntary agreements that employers and unions might make to establish such compulsory membership.

The truth is, the entire context within which bargaining between unions and employers takes place is defined by coercive constraints. Within that context, far removed from hypothetical notions of a genuine free market, it becomes difficult to paint with a broad brush on issues like “right to work” rules. No one ought to be forced to join a union (or any other organization), but neither should labor be prevented from dickering for terms that protect its bargaining power.

Market anarchists argue that exploitation resulting from unequal exchange is made possible by the state’s coercive power. Rather than proposing to remedy the lopsided, corrupt political economies of the state with still more aggression, however, market anarchists would remove force and authority from the market altogether.

When American anarchist Josiah Warren exhorted for what he called “Equitable Commerce,” or the exchange of “equal values,” he did not mean to compel such a system by force or overarching regulation. Warren instead believed, as do today’s market anarchists, that free and open competition itself would “exert [a] power upon all professions that are paid above equivalents.”

The state’s favorites derive their unjustified profits or rents from deliberate restriction of competition, not from any free market worthy of the name. Today, the perfect compatibility between the ideas that labor ought to have its due and that the market ought to be left alone has largely been lost to history. Free marketers like Warren, who believed that genuine competition was the best hope of the working man for justice, are looked upon — if at all — as historical anomalies.

But some radical libertarians on the left still hold to the judgment that, if actually allowed to compete freely with capital, labor would be justly compensated. Remove the state’s thumb from the scale, we maintain, and each individual will be rewarded to the extent of her productive work, of her doing something of value. Contrast such a free market to the rigged one the state has given u, one where rules purportedly for the consumer’s “safety” and “protection” have obstructed every route unattended by a corporate gatekeeper with his hand out for a toll.

In a commercial environment wherein markets are fenced off for giant corporations by the cartelizing effects of regulations, the issues around “right to work” laws are far from clear. The demonization of unions by the right ultimately makes about as much sense as the statist left’s insistence that free markets are responsible for the evils of corporate capitalism.

The aggression that permeates every cell of the existing system obscures both economic truths and potential alliances. Voluntary exchange and association, consistently applied, are the solution, but American capitalism is not so much as a distant cousin of that solution.

Anarchy and Democracy
Fighting Fascism
Markets Not Capitalism
The Anatomy of Escape
Organization Theory