Hayek on labor unions: coercion and the rule of law.

Author:Baird, Charles W.
Position:Friedrich Hayek - Critical essay

It is probably ... impossible in our time for a student to be a true friend of labour and to have the reputation of being one (Hayek [1959] 1967, p. 294).


As this epigraph implies, unions have a much better reputation than they deserve. Even today (2007) a majority of the general public thinks that labor unions are the best friend that any working man or woman could have. That is simply wrong, and in Friedrich Hayek's writings on unions, from Monetary Nationalism and International Stability ([1937] 1972, pp. 21-2) wherein he first noted the inflationary dangers of collective bargaining, to 1980s Unemployment and the Unions (1980), which Arthur Seldon characterized as the summation of Hayek's teaching on unions ([1980] 1984, p. 9), Hayek explained why. He argued that while unions benefited some workers, it was always at the expense of other workers, and that as a whole, unions have made workers significantly worse off than they would otherwise have been. Moreover, he saw unions as they were (and, in large measure, as they still are) in Britain and the U.S. as major threats to the free economy as well as the free society in general. He endorsed voluntary unionism on grounds of freedom of association properly understood, but he saw actual unions in both countries as wholly involuntary organizations to which politicians had granted both immunity from the ordinary rule of law and power to wield coercive authority mainly against workers who preferred to be union free. The malign consequences of coercive unionism examined by Hayek fall into two broad categories: conflicts with the rule of law and perverse social and economic effects. In both, Hayek saw immense problems which could only be solved by major reforms of public policy. (2) In this essay I discuss the issues of coercion and the rule of law.

I first discuss what Hayek meant by "coercive" unionism and what he saw as the sources of the unions' coercive powers in Britain and the U.S. Next I consider Hayek's vision of voluntary unionism as an instrument of discovery. Finally, I cover Hayek's views on coercive unionism and the rule of law as it relates to freedom of association, freedom of contract, and strikes and picketing.

Coercive Unionism

In The Constitution of Liberty (1960), Hayek outlined his views concerning the proper scope of government. He argued that the principal function of a just government is to provide the protective services of the classical night watchman state. Later, in Law, Legislation and Liberty I (1973), he characterized these protective services as those necessary to enforce the "rules of just conduct" among people. I have characterized these rules of just conduct as the rules of voluntary exchange (Baird 1995). These rules are general (applicable to all situations) and abstract (not designed to accomplish specific purposes). They set the environment within which people remain free to pursue their own purposes. To enforce such rules government must have some coercive power. According to Hayek, coercion is evil; but some coercion, exercised exclusively by government for the sole purpose of preventing people from trespassing against each other, is necessary.

To Hayek the rule of law has two parts: Government must be limited to enforcing the rules of voluntary exchange, and government must apply those rules uniformly over all people and to itself. People wielding governmental authority may grant no special privileges to, and impose no special burdens on, anyone. Hayek referred to the principle of equality before the law as isonomia. (1960, Part II). The private use of coercive force, except in self defense, is always contrary to the rule of law.

Now, unions are not governments. They are private organizations of private individuals. They should never be able to deal with any people except on the basis of voluntary exchange. Yet, in Britain and the U.S. politicians have granted unions the unique privilege of using coercion to get what they want.

Public policy concerning labor unions has, in little more than a century, moved from one extreme to the other. From a state in which little the unions could do was legal if they were not prohibited altogether, we now have reached a state where they have become uniquely privileged institutions to which the general rules of law do not apply. They have become the only important instance in which governments signally fail in their prime function--the prevention of coercion and violence (1960, p. 267). (3) What sort of coercion and violence did Hayek have in mind?

The unions cannot achieve their principal aims unless they obtain complete control of the supply of the type of labor with which they are concerned; and, since it is not in the interest of all workers to submit to such control, some of them must be induced to act against their own interest.... It is the techniques of coercion that unions have developed for the purpose of making membership in effect compulsory, what they call their 'organizational activities' (or, in the United States, 'union security'--a curious euphemism) that give them the real power (ibid., pp. 273-4). In Britain if a union, through strikes and threats of strikes, could get employers of a particular kind of labor to agree not to hire any union-free workers, the instrument of coercion would be to present recalcitrant workers with a "choice": join up or don't work. In the U.S. the same sort of coercive choice was imposed through the "union security" provisions of the National Labor Relations Act (1935). In 1947 that Act was amended by the Taft-Hartley Act, and subsequent decisions of the U.S. Supreme Court reduced compulsory union membership to the forced payment of union dues. It remains true in the U.S. that unions can coerce workers who prefer to be union-free to support them as a condition of continued employment.

However, unions do not stop there. Sometimes individual workers who wish to become or remain union-free are threatened with beatings and worse. Sometimes the threats become reality. Sometimes the families of recalcitrant workers are also victims of threats and attacks. (4) And all of this has been considered proper. How could this be?

All this has become possible because in the field of labour relations it has come to be accepted belief that the ends justify the means, and that, because of the public approval of the aims of union effort, they ought to be exempted from the ordinary rules of law. The whole modern development of unionism has been made possible mainly by the fact that public policy was guided by the belief that it was in the public interest that labour should be as comprehensively and completely organized as possible, and that in the pursuit of this aim the unions should be as little restricted as possible ([1959], 1967, p. 281). Muddled thinking and widespread belief in the "myth" that unions have benefited the working class and that those benefits would vanish in the absence of unions, leads public opinion to several false conclusions.

[T]he fact that it is a natural aim of the unions to induce all workers to join them has been so interpreted as to mean that the unions ought to be entitled to do whatever seems necessary to achieve this aim. Similarly, the fact that it is legitimate for unions to try to secure higher wages has been interpreted to mean that they must be allowed to do whatever seems necessary to succeed in their effort. In particular, because striking has been accepted as a legitimate weapon of unions, it has come to be believed that they must be allowed to do whatever seems necessary to make a strike successful. In general, the legalization of unions has come to mean that whatever methods they regard as indispensable for their purposes are also to be considered legal (1960, p. 274). This unthinking support of labor unions is based on confused notions of social justice.

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