Unions and Coercion, Cont'd

Published October 21st, 2013 -  - 10.21.132

Robert VerBruggen has some productive thoughts in response to my post on “Conservatives, Alt-Labor, and Coercion.”  He asks us to put ourselves in the place of an employee who begins work at a firm when the firm is nonunion, and to imagine that the workforce then elects to unionize.  In those circumstances, he argues, “[y]our only options are to quit your job – which, again, you took on terms that were and remain acceptable to both you and your employer – or accept the terms of a contract that neither you nor your employer would have signed absent government union policies. I don’t see how this isn’t coercive, both to your employer and to you.”

But now compare this situation: you start working in a nonunion setting at a wage of $15 per hour, and then the employer lowers the wage to $12 per hour.  Are you “coerced” into accepting the new wage because it was imposed after you started working and because your only options are to quit or accept the new term?  No.  We don’t consider this coercion because there are acceptable choices available to you.  You have the option to reject the $14 per hour wage and seek work elsewhere and thus a decision to stay and earn $12 per hour is a voluntary decision.

So, again, VerBruggen’s argument that unionism is coercive depends on the fact that the government is involved in facilitating unionization.  It’s true, of course, that federal labor law alters the choices that employees have to make.  Labor law means that some employees – who would have preferred to remain nonunion – will have to choose between a union and nonunion workplace.  But that’s not coercion, at least on the conventional understanding of it.  Coercion implies a lack of alternatives or a lack of acceptable alternatives, not simply altered choice sets.  And even with federal facilitation of unionization, 93% of the jobs in the private sector remain open to those employees who don’t want collective bargaining.  That is certainly an acceptable alternative to remaining in a firm that unionizes – even granting government intervention to facilitate the unionization process.

As I wrote in the earlier post, labor law might be seen as coercing employers, because employers have no choice but to accept a collective bargaining relationship if their employees vote for one.  But employees always maintain the freedom to leave one job and choose another if they don’t like unionization.  It’s this freedom that, in our legal culture, makes the employee’s choice to stay at a firm after it unionizes a voluntary one.

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