Thursday, September 4, 2008

Organized Labor v. Free Association

Here is the latest effort in our attempt to wake up both unions and employers to their responsibilities to the individual good of workers, and to the common good as a whole. As usual, please feel free to take what you need for your own attempt, or even post a comment on this blog.

Thomas Frank's "The Tilting Yard" column on 09/03/08 ("Happy Labor Day. Drop Dead" WSJ, A21) while no doubt well-intentioned, misses the point. He argues that employers exert pressure on employees to reject unionization, that the secret ballot is a farce, and implies that allowing unions to strong-arm workers in turn is somehow in the American tradition of fair play. He claims that real workplace democracy would allow workers to vote on such things as employer health care costs and movement of jobs overseas.

When workers have no defined private property stake in the company that employs them, however, the only right they have left (however ephemeral) is the natural right of free association. This is most often exhibited as the right to organize — or not organize, as they wish. Without direct ownership in the form of fully participating, voting shares of company stock, workers do not have the right to vote on the issues that Mr. Frank claims constitute workplace democracy.

The secret ballot, whether or not Mr. Frank can find authorities who regard it as a travesty of democracy, is the only thing the workers have left to protect them against both union and employer power. The secret ballot gives workers a small (a very small) degree of control over their own lives which would otherwise be completely at the mercy of organized labor or organized capital, treating workers as pawns of both union and corporate interests.

If Mr. Frank is genuinely concerned about the plight of the workers (as opposed to the plight of the unions) — as I assume he is — then he should refrain from ridiculing the secret ballot and attempting to abolish it. He should, instead, start lobbying for meaningful worker ownership, whether through ESOPs that pass through the vote and distribute dividends, or more direct ownership through the implementation of the innovative Capital Homesteading proposal.

Mr. Frank can best support and promote the union cause by advocating their transformation from labor unions, trapped in the conflict model of industrial relations, to "ownership unions" that would secure workers' rights as co-owners of the companies that employ them. Workers as owners have a natural right to a voice in corporate governance, to profit sharing, and to the fate of the company. Workers as independent contractors have only whatever statutory or contractual rights they can persuade their unions to support.

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