Robert VerBruggen has an interesting essay about why conservatives – or at least libertarian conservatives – should support “alt-Labor” strategies like the fast-food strikes waged last summer. VerBruggen defines alt-Labor as follows: “Instead of going through the normal channels to win workplace elections and represent laborers officially,” labor groups “are cobbling together as many participants as they can to stage strikes, hold protests, wage public-pressure campaigns, organize boycotts, and file lawsuits against employers.” He supports alt-Labor essentially because it eschews the coercive aspects of Wagner Act unionism:
[Alt-labor] is a terrific development for the freedom of contract. While one can reasonably criticize specific alt-labor groups in any number of ways, there’s very little that’s wrong with the idea of alt-labor itself. It’s merely an example of people exercising their rights to promote their interests.
To begin with, it helps to understand what drives conservatives and libertarians crazy about traditional unionization in this country. The particulars vary from state to state, from public sector to private sector, and from industry to industry, but the most important factor is usually what’s referred to as “collective bargaining”: When a majority of workers vote to unionize, the union wins the legal right to represent all the workers. Once workers unionize, it’s illegal for employers to negotiate directly with individual workers, even if neither the employer nor the worker in question has voluntarily agreed to this restriction. Employers are required to negotiate with unions in good faith. And once a contract is in place, unions are often entitled to dues or fees from all workers, including those who choose not to join. The entire system is rife with coercion.
Alt-labor groups, despite all they do to put pressure on employers, are different. They do not seek to represent workers by government force.
I think VerBruggen is right about why many conservatives (especially of the libertarian strain) dislike unions, and I also think he is right that conservatives (of this strain) should in principle support alt-Labor. (This point applies as well to the conservatives on the Supreme Court who are attacking unions most vigorously on freedom of association grounds in cases like Knox.) I would go further, and say that conservatives should for similar reasons support other extra-Wagner Act labor initiatives.
For example: For the same reason that VerBruggen supports alt-Labor, he should like Ben’s proposal to unbundle political organization from collective bargaining, which also promotes free association and rejects coercive unionism. Similarly, he should have no problem in theory with the Work Councils in play in Chattanooga, at least if it were possible (which, I agree with Ben, it is not under current law) to have such Councils without coercive unionism. (Put another way, VerBruggen should support elimination of the company union ban.)
I also think VerBruggen should think hard about supporting the neutrality agreements at stake in Mulhall. Florida (which is the locus of the relationship governed by the contract) is a “right to work” state and thus (as Thomas Frampton explained) Mulhall himself cannot be required to join the union that has contracted with the employer in that case, or pay dues to it. As I noted of Mulhall a while back: As long as there is no plausible argument that neutrality agreements between employers and unions adversely impact employees who want to resist unionization, conservatives should support them, for they replace the Wagner Act paradigm with labor management by freedom of contract. VerBruggen might respond that Mulhall is still bound by the rule of exclusive representation if the union gets 51% of employees to sign cards, and thus he cannot negotiate his own employment contract, in violation of libertarian principles. But since the employer in Mulhall voluntarily accepted the union (as opposed to having the union imposed on it via the Wagner Act), I do not see why Mulhall’s need to accept the union’s bargaining agreement with the employer is any more “coercive” than his need to accept the other take-it-or-leave-it terms of employment the employer imposes. That in a nutshell is why I think libertarian conservatives should be rooting for the union in Mulhall on freedom of contract grounds.