Is “Right to Work” Libertarian?

I’m not a particular fan of unions as they’ve manifested themselves in the U.S. (Exposure to union thuggery and violence as a child will do that to a chap.) And given my generally libertarian orientation, I generally oppose government policies that place a finger on the scale in support of organized labor. At the same time, however, I’m not convinced that policies pushing in the other direction are much better.

As it happens, not all libertarians support right-to work laws. Gary Chartier, for instance, argues that right-to-work laws infringe upon freedom of contract because they prevent employers from agreeing to union shop contracts.

A “union shop” agreement between an employer and a union commits the employer to ensuring that new hires join the union within a specified period. Right-to-work laws ban union-shop agreements.

Let’s put it another way: They violate freedom of contract. . . .

Employers own the wages they will pay and the sites where work will be performed under such contracts. So it’s their right to dispense the wages and make the sites available specifically to union members, just as it’s their right, more generally, to trade with anyone they choose. . . .

Supporting a free society means embracing people’s freedom to form unions. And it means acknowledging that unions—and union-shop agreements—can offer both workers and employers something valuable.

Unions can help to secure workers predictable terms of employment and protect them against arbitrary dismissal. And a union contract can help make workplaces more predictable for employers, ensure that information is disseminated to workers, and reduce a variety of workplace transaction costs.

So, Chartier argues, if a given employer is willing to agree with a union to only hire union members, there’s no reason for the state to intervene. Provided any such agreement is voluntary, where is the harm? At Reason J.D. Tuccille adds:

The ideal role for the government in business-labor relations is to stay the hell out of it and let the parties work things out themselves. I may prefer one outcome or another, but I don’t have the right to enforce it by law, and that’s what right-to-work legislation does.

One argument for right-to-work laws is that such rules provide a counter-balance against an inherent pro-labor bias in federal labor law. But if that’s really the problem, it would seem the better solution would be to fix federal labor law, not endorse yet more government interference with private economic arrangements. Are there better libertarian arguments for right-to-work laws? If so, I’d like to hear them, for at the moment (and despite my anti-union sentiments), I’m not convinced.

UPDATE: For those interested in the economic effects of right-to-work laws, Matthew Kahn reports on his recent paper finding that labor-intensive industries do appear to like less-union-friendly jurisdictions.

SECOND UPDATE: Iain Murray and Ivan Osorio argue right-to-work laws are “more libertarian” than the status quo.

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