Unions and Coercion, Cont'd (one more time)

Benjamin Sachs

Benjamin Sachs is the Kestnbaum Professor of Labor and Industry at Harvard Law School and a leading expert in the field of labor law and labor relations. He is also faculty director of the Center for Labor and a Just Economy. Professor Sachs teaches courses in labor law, employment law, and law and social change, and his writing focuses on union organizing and unions in American politics. Prior to joining the Harvard faculty in 2008, Professor Sachs was the Joseph Goldstein Fellow at Yale Law School.  From 2002-2006, he served as Assistant General Counsel of the Service Employees International Union (SEIU) in Washington, D.C.  Professor Sachs graduated from Yale Law School in 1998, and served as a judicial law clerk to the Honorable Stephen Reinhardt of the United States Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit. His writing has appeared in the Harvard Law Review, the Yale Law Journal, the Columbia Law Review, the New York Times and elsewhere.  Professor Sachs received the Yale Law School teaching award in 2007 and in 2013 received the Sacks-Freund Award for Teaching Excellence at Harvard Law School.  He can be reached at [email protected].

Wrapping up what (to me) has been a useful debate, VerBruggen offers a thoughtful reply to my latest post on the coercion question.  He writes:

My argument that unionism is coercive depends on the fact that the government is involved. If you work for a company at $15 an hour and there’s no contract saying your pay can’t be cut, you are not being coerced if your employer cuts your pay; you were not entitled to keep receiving $15 an hour, your employer was not obligated to keep paying $15 an hour, and you are free to seek employment elsewhere. But I don’t think it’s strange at all to say that you (and your employer) are being “coerced” if the government steps in and authorizes a union to void your contract and negotiate a new one on your behalf. In one case, private parties are coming to their own mutually acceptable arrangements and then abiding by them; in the other, the government is helping to alter those arrangements through the force — the coercion — of law.

I called the article “Why Conservatives Should Love Alt-Labor” for a reason. I was laying out what frustrates conservatives and libertarians about unions and explaining why those factors are not present in alt-labor, and thus I used the word “coercion” as libertarians and conservatives often use it: to denote the intrusion of government force into private arrangements.

If VerBruggen’s argument is that labor law is “coercive” simply because it amounts to government intervention into the employment relationship, then we have no argument: on this definition, labor law is coercive.   (To be fair, on this definition, all labor and employment law – from Title VII’s ban on employment discrimination to OSHA’s requirement of safe workplaces – is coercive.  Labor law, and the unionization it facilitates, would have no special claim to this type of coercion.)  But I took VerBruggen’s argument about the coerciveness of labor law to imply something more: that labor law forces employees to accept a union, or to accept the terms of a collective bargaining agreement, or to accept the process of collective bargaining.  None of those claims is accurate for the reasons I’ve pointed to already: because labor law leaves employees free to quit a union firm and work for a nonunion one, the law doesn’t force employees to do any of these things.

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