In this paper, Walter Block applies libertarian axioms and theorems of property rights to labor unionism. His reasoning is thorough and unimpeachable throughout.
Sometimes I don’t get him, though. When he talks about road privatization even within towns, his ideas are easily dismissed as if, in his own words, “ravings of a lunatic.” Yet in this article he makes a perfectly sensible point regarding whether a union can picket on public roads and sidewalks. Let’s indeed, Walter says, consider a picket line to be a perfectly innocuous supplier of information, as unions themselves insist.
In that case, the best analogy is the man who walks up and down the street with sandwich board placards advertising for a local merchant. Would the court allow one or even two such moving billboards? Certainly, provided that they kept some distance between themselves, and did not interfere with passersby. Would the court allow dozens of tightly packed sandwich board carriers who impeded the normal traffic flow? Certainly not.
We conclude from these considerations that striking unionist who use “public property” should be treated exactly like any other group of people attempting to advertise information [in the eyes of the law].
A unionist may refer to “his” job. He assumes he has the liberty to go on strike, get what he “demands,” and go back to this job. But, Walter points out, a job is an agreement between two parties to exchange services for money continuously. If any party, whether the employer or the employee, changes its mind, the agreement dissipates, and the “job” goes away. The unionist does not therefore own his job the way he owns his truck.
As a result, a strike under laissez-faire would put the worker’s “job” in serious jeopardy, if the company struck against hires replacement workers and even says goodbye to the strikers permanently. This would have most salutary effect on labor discipline. From the social point of view, production must go on, and consumers must be served each and every day. It is absurd for workers to threaten to impoverish a community by refusing to produce.
Unions are the only organizations in modern society permitted both by law and the common ideology to aggress against innocent parties, such as “scabs” and the consumers of their employer’s products. As Robert Murphy comments, “Unions are among the few groups to issue formal ‘demands.’ Some of the others are hijackers, kidnappers, and bank robbers.”
But should we side with the conservatives who “take the view that anti-trust and anti-combines law ought to be applied to unions”? No, says Walter.
First, a strike is not inherently illegitimate. If a single person can lawfully quit his job, then “all workers, together, have every right to do so, en masse. All conspiracy laws ought to be repealed, provided only that the agreement is to do something that would be legal when undertaken by a single individual.” A strike, he goes on, “refers not to one act, but to two. A strike is, first, a withdrawal of labor in unison from an employer, on the part of the relevant organized employees. Against this, there can be no objection. … There is a second aspect of the strike, however. This element is pernicious, insidious, and entirely improper: the union practice of making it impossible for the struck employer to deal with alternative sources of labor, who are anxious to compete for the jobs the strikers have just vacated.”
In the previous post, we saw that Walter considers unions’ unjust violence to be their very essence, going so far as to define the nature of a “labor union” to be thus morally wicked. Unions are defined by both of the foregoing aspects. Mises agrees: “When in the past the laws of some countries denied to employees the right to form unions, they were guided by the idea that such unions have no objective other than to resort to violent action and intimidation. When the authorities in the past sometimes directed their armed forces to protect the employers, their mandataries, and their property against the onslaught of strikers, they were not guilty of acts hostile to ‘labor.’ They simply did what every government considers its main duty. They tried to preserve their exclusive right to resort to violent action.”
However, it is not the case that governments are innocent in this matter. Thus, second, in the case of coercive violent unionism, Walter quotes Rothbard:
the remedy… is not to pass laws outlawing strikes; it is to remove the substantial body of law, federal, state, and local, that confers special governmental privileges on labor unions. …
when general indignation against unions led to Taft-Hartley Act of 1947, the government did not repeal any of these special privileges. Instead, it added special restrictions upon unions to limit the power which the government itself had created. …
The government’s seemingly contradictory policy on unions serves, first, to aggrandize the power of government over labor relations, and second, to foster a suitably integrated and Establishment-minded unionism as junior partner in government’s role over the economy.
One intervention begets others, until society is a meaningless mess.
Walter concludes, reasonably, that “sound public policy… consists in… stripping unions of all coercive powers.”