James Sherk on Conservatives and Alt-Labor

Published October 22nd, 2013 -  - 10.22.1311


James Sherk of the Heritage Foundation writes in:

As a conservative who works on labor policy issues for the Heritage Foundation, I partially agree with Jack’s post on Conservative Support for Alt-Labor. I absolutely agree that the 8(a)(2) ban on alternative forms of employee representation should go, and, like Robert VerBruggen, I agree the greatest problem with worker centers comes from their abusive picketing, not necessarily tactics that are inherent to the organizations. But I strongly disagree with both Jack and Benjamin about neutrality agreements and, in particular, the exclusive representation agreements they promote.

Contra Benjamin, I find exclusive representation highly coercive—even if employees have the option of working elsewhere. Richard Freeman famously described unions as having two roles in the workplace: They provide a formal voice for workers, and they act as monopolists. This “monopoly face” applies not just vis-à-vis workers and their employers but vis-à-vis workers within the firm.

In nonunion firms, workers who do not like their compensation packages can press to improve them. Firms often (although by no means always) listen. Research finds that individual employees bargain with employers over pay about as often as they face “take it or leave it” offers. Many employees have a non-trivial voice on the job.

Exclusive representation forcibly silences these individual voices. It legally requires all employees to speak with one voice through a union. This hurts employees whose preferences differ from the majority in the union. They cannot legally influence their working conditions except by quitting.

Consider the fact that unions typically support raises and layoffs based on seniority—not individual performance. Few new hires support this. Similarly, most hard workers want performance-based pay that recognizes their greater effort. Without exclusive representation, these workers could ask for contracts that reflect their desires. Even if these provisions went against the business’s general policy, the employer could make an exception.

With exclusive representation, it cannot. The law requires companies to ignore workers whose preferences differ from the union. So when the Giant Eagle grocery store in Edinboro, Pennsylvania, tried to give two dozen workers individual raises, their union filed a grievance. UFCW Local 23 wanted to ensure that all junior workers made less than their more senior colleagues. The fact that the store wanted to motivate hard work and the employees wanted to accept the raises did not matter. The arbitrator forced Giant Eagle to rescind the pay increases.

Exclusive representation gives unions the power to block mutually beneficial contracts between employers and employees. I—and most conservatives and libertarians—find this highly coercive.

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