Posts tagged Wagner Act

Re: Individualism Clashes with Cooperation? It Just Ain’t So!


When I write that “voluntary mutual aid societies and workers\’ unions” are among the “myriad other ways for free people to choose individually to cooperate without cash exchanges,” I do in fact mean for the word “voluntary” to mean something. I agree with you that government labor bureaucracy, and government agencies (such as the National Labor Relations Board in the U.S.) that force employers to bargain with unions based on a majority vote of the workers, are violations of the rights of employers to chose who or who not to bargain with. But that’s no more an indictment of unions per se than the existence of government-supported monopoly corporations or government-created captive markets for large corporations (such as government-protected electrical, gas, water, local cable, or telecom monopolists; or such as the government’s use of force to, e.g., force unwilling customers to buy auto insurance) is an indictment of corporations per se.

Labor unions, as a form of voluntary association, existed and flourished in the United States (to take one example) for about 65 years before the Wagner Act was passed, and during that time they did their work without government patronage, and, indeed, often in the face of government persecution and tremendous amounts of violence, directed against even nonviolent strikers. Today, there exist successful fighting unions that do not participate in the NLRB system, either because they object to the bureaucratic process (as with the Industrial Workers of the World), or because the workers they represent are legally excluded from NLRB recognition (as with farmworkers’ unions such as the UFW, FLOC, and the Coalition of Immokalee Workers). In fact, in an age of plummeting union membership and constant schism among establishment unions like the AFL-CIO or “Change to Win” (ha, ha), these non-recognized unions are among the only unions that can report any real success in recent organizing drives. I conclude, therefore, that labor unions can and do exist without “government sanctions of monopoly and compulsion.” You admit as much at the end of your comment; but given that it is true, it’s curious that you’d object to including them on the list of forms of voluntary association that free people might choose to engage in. Do you also object to saying that free people might set up private schools, since after all schooling is mostly carried on these days by government and at taxpayer expense?

That said, while I agree, again, that the NLRB and its regulations are instances of coercion, I can’t agree with your claims about union shop or agency shop contracts. (That is, contracts in which a union and an employer agree that new employees must become a member of the union, or must pay in a fee as a substitute for their dues if they choose not to become a member.) There is in fact absolutely nothing in free-market theory which would forbid an employer from making such a contract as part of a bargain with a labor union; in a free market, employers and workers can make any kind of contracts about hiring and firing that they want to make. The fact that unions have an artificially strong bargaining position due to NLRB coercion is, of course, a violation of the rights of the employer; but adopting a particular kind of restrictive hiring agreement as a result of that bargaining, even in the existing unfree market, is not a violation of the rights of non-union workers. Prospective workers do not have a right to override private contracts in order to secure some particular job, and bosses have no moral obligation to give jobs to workers who won’t join the union, if they have have agreed to sign on to a more restrictive set of hiring practices.

Nor can I agree with your claim that a strike is an “example of union coercion.” This is absurd; all workers have a right to quit working, either individually or en masse; thus they have a right to go on strike. And if workers decide to join a private association, like a labor union, which has private disciplinary procedures for members, then that association has every right to hold them to their agreement. If you don’t like it, you should quit the union. If you can’t quit the union without quitting your job, you should quit your job. Losing a job is sad, but it’s not a violation of your rights. The world doesn’t owe you a living and if, in order to get a job you wanted, you agreed to sign on to a contract stipulating that you’d join the union and abide by union decisions to strike, then you can hardly complain that you’re being “coerced” just by being held to the terms of your contract. Nor can I agree with the claim that a union picket line is, just as such, a threat of violence against those who would choose to cross it. Of course, there have been cases in the past where people who nonviolently crossed picket lines were subjected to vigilante violence against their persons or against their property. That sort of thing is wrong, dead wrong, and should be condemned as invasions of the freedom of those who would chose to cross them. But there is nothing about a picket per se that demands or threatens that kind of bad behavior: there are lots of perfectly peaceful picket lines, and I can’t for the life of me see why the violence of some picketers should be used to impugn other picketers who never threatened anything of the sort, or who conscientiously swore off any kind of violence whatever. Certainly the form of unionism I have in mind, when mentioning labor unions as one potential form of voluntary cooperation, is the form of unionism that FW Joe Ettor proposed, when he said, during the great Lawrence textile strike of 1912:

“If the workers of the world want to win, all they have to do is recognize their own solidarity. They have nothing to do but fold their arms and the world will stop. The workers are more powerful with their hands in their pockets than all the property of the capitalists. As long as the workers keep their hands in their pockets, the capitalists cannot put theirs there. With passive resistance, with the workers absolutely refusing to move, lying absolutely silent, they are more powerful than all the weapons and instruments that the other side has for attack.”

Finally, I think it is a mistake to claim, as you do, that government labor laws unilaterally put a “heavy thumb … on the unions’ side of the scale.” It’s true that government labor laws grant substantial privileges to a certain kind of labor union (the kind that wants and can get NLRB recognition). But it also imposes substantial regulatory burdens; the government patronage comes with government strings attached. For example, it is completely illegal for NLRB-recognized unions to engage in wildcat strikes, secondary strikes, or secondary boycotts; they are absolutely forbidden from holding out for closed shop contracts and, in “Right to Work” states, are legally forbidden from even getting a union shop contract; union hiring halls are illegal; declared strikes can be, and have been, declared illegal by the arbitrary fiat of the President of the United States. All this means that some unions are privileged by the NLRB system — generally, relatively conservative business unions, like those in the AFL-CIO and “Change to Win,” who operate mainly through collective bargaining processes with management, who limit their tactics to backroom negotiations and limited strikes, who limit their goals to job security clauses or benefit packages in a conventional labor contract, and which retain a team of professional labor lawyers, union bosses, and full-time “organizers” to do their work. Meanwhile it burdens or outright criminalizes other kinds of unions, which used to be much more prominent in the pre-Wagner era — rank-and-file-run unions like the I.W.W., who generally refused collective bargaining, favored minority unionism, direct action on the shop floor, solidarity strikes, general strikes, union hiring halls, and other forms of action that didn’t depend on maintaining any kind of bureaucratic interface with the boss or the State.

For more on wildcat unionism and free market principles, see my articles “Free the Unions (and all political prisoners)!” [1] and “In reply to a reply by Walter Block and J.H. Huebert” [2], my series of articles on the Coalition of Immokalee Workers and the series of victories it has won through government-free wildcat unionism [3], and Kevin Carson’s essay “The Ethics of Labor Struggle: A Free Market Perspective” [4].

Hope this helps.

Re: Labor Unions And Freedom Don’t Mix

You are aware, aren’t you,

  1. … that those same labor laws which provide privileges to NLRB-recognized unions by forcing employers into collective-bargaining also heavily regulate the methods that NLRB-recognized unions can adopt, and the goals that they can achieve? That, for example, under Taft-Hartley, legally-recognized unions are forbidden from striking except under a limited range of government-approved conditions, that they are legally prohibited from establishing union hiring halls or freely negotiating a closed shop contract with employers, that in many states (under so-called “right to work” laws) they are legally prohibited from freely negotiating a union shop contract with employers, that they are legally prohibited from promoting secondary boycotts or engaging in secondary strikes (i.e. boycotts or strikes against a company for doing business with a second company workers have a grievance with; this prohibition effectively bans general strikes and mandates union scabbing), that strikes can be (and have been) broken by the arbitrary fiat of the President of the United States, etc., etc., etc.? In fact, while some factions of the labor movement (especially the AFL and the nascent CIO) actively lobbied for the Wagner Act and the system of state patronage that it created, other, more radical factions of the labor movement were stridently opposed to it, arguing (correctly) that Roosevelt’s plan was an effort to subsidize bureaucratic conservative unionism, and thus to capture and domesticate the labor movement. And predicting (accurately) that the practical consequences of the NLRB system would be to substantially hamstring the labor movement, and to benefit only a few fatcat union bosses, at the expense of rank-and-file workers.

  2. … that for about half of its history (from the founding of the Knights of Labor in 1869 up to the Wagner Act in 1935), the American labor movement operated in a political and legal environment where it had no government recognition, no government privileges, and in fact was repeatedly, violently attacked by injunction-wielding judges, by the police, the military, by the U.S. Marshalls, by President Woodrow Wilson and Attorney General Alexander Mitchell Palmer and a young J. Edgar Hoover, by state militias, private “security” companies, and mobs? That radical unions like the IWW nevertheless managed to organize hundreds of thousands of workers in spite of this unrelenting violence and to win, without any use of government privilege, substantial victories in towns like Lawrence, Massachusetts and Spokane, Washington? I conclude that labor unions can be quite effective when based on free association and without government privilege.

If the conclusion you’re trying to urge here is just that the NLRB and the AFL-CIO are statist, well, sure. Who denies that? Certainly not the NLRB or the AFL-CIO, who candidly declare their allegiance to a big, interventionist government; and certainly not pro-union anarchists, either, who generally refer to establishment unionism as “labor fakirs” deserving nothing but scorn, and advocate for radical unions organized along quite different lines, and with quite different aims.

If, on the other hand, you’re trying to establish some more general conclusion, like (say) “Labor Unions and Freedom Don’t Mix,” or that “the state is the first weapon in the labor union’s arsenal to be wielded against employers and workers alike,” or that “the ultimate dream of the labor unions is to completely replace the existing state, allowing them to force their will on 100% of the people 100% of the time,” i.e., a claim about what labor unions per se do and want, rather than what a temporarily triumphant, government-subsidized faction within the labor movement does and wants, but which other, competing factions within the labor movement have repeatedly condemned, then I can’t say you’ve offered much by way of convincing evidence for that conclusion.

As for Bakunin and his followers, I certainly have my disagreements with Bakuninist collectivism. (That’s why I’m an individualist, or a mutualist, rather than a collectivist.) But you’re distorting their position. Bakunin’s idea of federated labor unions is not a replacement state. He believed that the best arrangement for society was a federated structure of workers’ and community associations. But he also believed in an absolute right to dissociate from any union or other association that one did not want to participate in or cooperate with. Thus: “[W]ithout certain absolutely essential conditions the practical realization of freedom will be forever impossible. These conditions are: . . . The internal reorganization of each country on the basis of the absolute freedom of individuals, of the productive associations, and of the communes. Necessity of recognizing the right of secession: every individual, every association, every commune, every region, every nation has the absolute right to self-determination, to associate or not to associate, to ally themselves with whomever they wish and repudiate their alliances without regard to so-called historic rights or the convenience of their neighbors.” (Revolutionary Catechism, 1866). Etc. Bakunin’s problems, such as they are, lie elsewhere. May I gently suggest that, if you want to find out Mikhail Bakunin’s views, you might be better off reading works by Mikhail Bakunin, rather than summaries of those works by Per Bylund?

As for Joe and his workers, I certainly agree that Joe should not be forced by the government (or by any form of violence) to engage in collective bargaining with the striking workers. However, I think you’re walloping on a strawman, as far as the worker’s demands go (do you know of any strike, even under the existing statist labor bureaucracy, in which workers demanded a 400% wage increase?); and I think you’re also pretty severely overestimating the ease of replacing 25%-40% of the workers on the shop floor all at once, especially if you’re trying to accomplish this without offering substantially higher wages or improved conditions. In real-world labor struggle, being in a position where you can get 25% or more of the workforce ready to just walk off the job often puts you in a very good position for getting substantial concessions from the boss.

Re: August Carnival of Market Anarchy

You say: “Labor Unions, as we know them, are largely the product of politics and pull, and were (at least in theory) implemented as a countervailing force to Big Business.”

Labor unions as we know them are largely the product of politics and pull, but labor unions per se predate the existence of government patronage to unions. In fact, about half the history of the American labor movement (from the founding of the Knights of Labor in 1869 to the passage of the Wagner Act in 1935) was carried out not only without any form of state recognition and privilege, but in fact in the face of massive police, militia and military violence against organizers, strikers, and people who just happened to be in the wrong crowd at the wrong time. During this period, many of the powerful labor unions were much more, not less radical — the Wobblies were resolutely anti-war, pro-immigration, often anarchist, etc. Reason being that the Wagner system was deliberately constructed in order to subsidize bureaucratic conservative unionism as against its radical competitors, and the effects of the World War II command economy, combined with the Taft-Hartley act, was to make heavy-handed government regulation of permissible union goals and union methods the price for the government patronage. (Anti-union libertarians who, rightly, complain about the privileges that government grants to union bosses almost never discuss how closely regulated unions thus “privileged” are.) The purpose was to capture and domesticate a labor movement that the New Dealers viewed as an increasingly dangerous revolutionary force, to convert their bosses into junior partners and their rank-and-file into loyal foot-soldiers in the tripartite planning system of the new corporatist state.

Aahz’s uncritical identification of official, government-recognized unions with “labor unions” just as such, and his erasure of six and a half decades of state-free radical labor organizing, is just vulgar libertarianism running in reverse: the conflation of actually-existing, state-regulated unionism — unions “as we know them” — with unionism per se, followed by an uncritical attack on unions as somehow incompatible with, or unsustainable on, the free market, without stopping to consider whether, just as there might be viable business models for putting capital to use other than corporate capitalism as we know it, there might also be viable organizing models for unionizing workers other than conservative, pro-state unionism as we know it.

Re: On Dissolving the State, and What to Replace It With


Broadly speaking, I agree with your and Henley’s point about strategic priorities. It’s an odd form of libertarianism, and a damned foolish one, that operates by trying to pitch itself to the classes that control all the levers of power in both the market and the State, and to play off their fears and class resentment against those who have virtually no power, no access to legislators, are disproportionately likely not to even be able to vote, and who are trodden upon by the State at virtually every turn. It makes just about as much sense as trying to launch a feminist movement whose first campaign would be to organize a bunch of men against their “crazy ex-girlfriends.”

But I do want to sound a note of caution. Aren’t there a lot of so-called social programs out there which the government fraudulently passes off as crutches, when in fact they are crowbars? Since you mentioned it, consider the minimum wage–the primary effect of which is simply to force willing workers out of work. If it benefits any workers, then it benefits the better-off workers at the expense of marginal workers who can less afford to lose the job. Or, to take another example, consider every gradualist’s favorite program — the government schools — which in fact function as highly regimented, thoroughly stifling, and unbearably unpleasant detention-indoctrination-humiliation camps for the vast majority of children and adolescents for whose benefit these edu-prisons are supposedly being maintained.

Or for that matter, consider phony “pro-labor” legislation like the Wagner Act, the primary function of which is actually to capture unions with government patronage and bring them under greater government regulation.

Aren’t there a lot of so-called “crutches,” usually defended by corporate liberals and excoriated by conservatives, which really ought to be pressured and resisted and limited and abolished as quickly as possible, precisely because, bogus liberal and conservative arguments notwithstanding, they actually work to shackle the poor or otherwise powerless “for their own good”?