Henry Hazlitt on Unions: Part II
Baird, Charles W., Freeman
In my last column (November) I discussed Henry Hazlitt's views on the economic effects of unions, exclusive representation and mandatory bargaining, labor's alleged bargaining-power disadvantage, and the right to strike. Here I will discuss three other aspects of Hazlitt's views on American unionism: involuntary unionism, government-employee unionism, and what he called the "Grand Illusion" of labor solidarity.
Correctly understood, freedom of association is each person's right to affiliate with any group pursuing legal ends that is willing to associate with him. Logically, this implies that each person is free to abstain from affiliation even if the group is eager for him to join. American unionism under the National Labor Relations Act is not based on freedom of association because where there is a certified union, individual workers may not abstain from associating. Moreover, American union law violates employers' freedom of association by mandating goodfaith bargaining. American unionism is involuntary unionism. Hazlitt put it this way:
In accordance with the principle of freedom of peaceful association, the law should not prohibit unions, but neither should it go out of its way to encourage them. Certainly the government should not continue, as it does in the United States, to turn itself in effect into a union-organizing agency and to force employers to negotiate with unions.1
Voluntary unions would, according to Hazlitt, have legitimate functions to perform:
There are, no doubt, areas in which the activities of unions, wisely directed, could be on the whole beneficent-in negotiating with individual employers, for example, concerning hours of work and such conditions of work as light, air, sanitary arrangements, rest rooms, coffee breaks, shop rules, grievance machinery, and the like.2
In 1946 he stated that the legitimate functions of voluntary unions would include assuring "that all of their members get the true market value of their services."3 That is, any worker who felt that he wasn't being paid the full value of his services should be free to designate a willing union to bargain for him with an employer who was willing to bargain. He then went on to state that it is highly unlikely that most workers would be in such a situation because underpaid workers are a profit opportunity for other employers to bid wages up.
Hazlitt thought that the principle of freedom of association also justified voluntary government-employee unions. However, he advocated strict limits to the scope of collective bargaining in the government sector.
They [civil servants], like private employees, should not be prohibited from joining unions. They, too, should enjoy the right to freedom of peaceable association. But no government unit for which these public employees work should be under any legal obligation whatever to recognize or negotiate with such unions. . . . It is . . . an absurdity for the public authorities to make agreements or "contracts" with these unions. The terms of employment should be set by the government directly with the individual employee.4
Hazlitt also held that third-party arbitration was never proper in the government sector.
If the government authorities "bargain collectively" with unions, and if the union leaders refuse to accept the final terms offered, must the authorities then turn to third parties and let them decide the terms? The elected representatives of the people have been elected to make these decisions. …