Guarantee to Unions the Same Rights the Rest of Us Have

The following article by Linn and Ari Armstrong originally was published March 4 by Grand Junction Free Press.

Union battles in Wisconsin spilled over into Colorado February 22 as union supporters and Tea Party groups held opposing rallies at the capitol. See for Ari’s videos. The clash offers a great opportunity to review the proper functions and legal protections of unions.

The essential principle is that individuals have the right to associate voluntarily with others, whether as friends, union supporters, or corporate investors. Our First Amendment recognizes the fundamental “right of the people peaceably to assemble.”

The great irony and hypocrisy of the left is that it seeks to deprive people of their rights of assembly and speech when they join corporations. People have the right to speak, try to persuade others, and contribute their funds to whatever (nonviolent) causes they want, whether as individuals or as voluntary participants in unions, corporations, or other groups.

“Corporations aren’t people,” the left continuously cries. True, and neither are unions. However, all groups are composed of individuals, and people don’t lose their rights (or acquire any new ones) by virtue of joining some group.

Employers too have the right to associate freely by seeking to hire whomever they please, on whatever terms both parties agree to adopt. Whether employers want to hire no union members, only union members, or some combination, that is properly their right. Thus, we oppose so-called “right to work” laws restricting the voluntary association of unions and employers.

The problem with the Wagner Act (also called the National Labor Relations Act) signed by Franklin Delano Roosevelt in 1935 is that, in conjunction with subsequent legislation, it violates the rights of employers and their employees to associate freely. Today’s unions use political force to drive wages for a select few above market rates, thereby contributing to unemployment and the degradation of American industry. And often government has permitted outright violence by union thugs, who have forcibly shut down businesses and viciously attacked nonunion employees.

Just law neither grants to unions special political advantages nor impedes their formation. Properly speaking, there are no special “union rights” or “corporate rights” or rights for any other group. There are only individual rights, which are the same for everybody, and which people retain when they consensually join together.

Note that when people form unions solely by voluntary consent and eschew violence and political force, those unions become part of the free market economy. The free market simply describes all the networks of individuals who respect each other’s property rights and interact voluntarily.

What about political-sector unions, which are the cause of all the fuss in Wisconsin? We might note that the obvious way to resolve the problem in many cases is to restore those jobs to the free market, but then we’d be accused of radicalism.

Government employees don’t need special legal protections for “collective bargaining.” Union members are free to rally, argue, campaign, and vote. And taxpayers have every right, through their elected representatives, to say no to union demands. The right of the taxpayer to his own earnings is what the political-sector unions blatantly disregard.

At the Denver rally, various union supporters claimed that unions are responsible for shorter workweeks, higher wages, and the rise of the middle class. In fact, insofar as unions have resorted to political force, they have thrown others out of work, undermined American business, and stunted the middle class.

The fundamental driver of higher wages is worker productivity. People in an economy as a whole cannot earn more than they produce. And productivity depends on capital formation. People can produce a lot more with computers, tractors, high-tech factory equipment, and automobiles than they can with crude iron tools and horse-drawn plows. Higher productivity is what enables people to earn more. Thank the capitalists, not the unions, for increasing wages.

True, in a small fraction of cases, unions might, without resorting to political force, persuade an obstinate business owner to pay market wages. In such cases the owner is better off paying more, or he’ll soon lose his best workers to competitors. Yet it is fundamentally this competition for labor, not union pressure, that drives up wages as productivity increases.

We were shocked to hear the blatant class envy of many of the Denver union supporters. “Eat the rich,” “tax the rich,” “tax those bastards up in Aspen,” stick it to corporations, we heard. How shameful.

True, some people in our largely politicized economy enrich themselves by gaining favors for the politically connected. That’s how newly elected Chicago mayor and Democratic favorite Rahm Emanuel gained his money, as Tim Carney pointed out a couple years ago in the Washington Examiner.

But big earners in the free sectors of the economy produce their wealth through years of dedication, hard work, long hours, and foresight. They drive our prosperity. Their money belongs to them, and their rights should not be sacrificed to destructive and hateful envy.