Worker’s Rights Advance, Under the Radar


In the firestorm of news reports surrounding President Trump’s nominees and Russia’s hacking, some great news about workers’ rights has been overlooked. But in January, without any fanfare, Kentucky adopted a right-to-work (RTW) law.

An RTW law simply gives workers in any business where the workers are unionized the right not to support (i.e., join or pay dues to) the union. Without RTW laws, unions can and often do compel workers to join or support them in spite of their desires. While the right to join a union is protected by federal law, the right to refuse to join is not so protected. It is up to the states to pass RTW laws, and counting Kentucky, 27 states have now done so.

The Kentucky House of Representatives first passed the measure by a vote of 58–39. What allowed this to happen was a massive recent historical change: the Republicans took control (by a nearly 2-to-1 margin) of the chamber, which had been controlled by Democrats for nearly a century. Shortly thereafter the bill was passed by the Republican-controlled Senate, in a rare Saturday session, and the Governor — Matt Bevin, also a Republican — immediately signed it into law.

Short-term, this was a fabulous deal for the auto workers, giving them a seemingly crazy amount of job security. But in the long run, it drove the automakers off a fiscal cliff.

The reaction to this by Kentucky union leaders was predictably bitter. Bill Londrigan, head of the Kentucky AFL-CIO, angrily barked, “Right-to-work is simply a clever slogan designed to undermine union resources.” Caitlin Lally, of the Greater Louisville Central Labor Council, lamented, “The future of the fight is in . . . trying to stop the erosion of wages, benefits and safety.”

This is nonsense, of course. There are several compelling arguments about why it is morally repugnant to force workers to support a union, arguments that are winning out in state after state.

First, unions justify forcing workers to support them with the free rider argument: since the unions deliver great contracts to the workers, it is right to make every worker pay dues. However, it is by no means clear that unions negotiate contracts that benefit the workers overall and long-term. For example, the contracts the United Auto Workers were able to force upon US automakers included provisions that seemed great — such as the one requiring the companies to keep all employees on at full pay when any of the companies shuttered a plant (say, because the model made at the plant wasn’t selling). Short-term, this was a fabulous deal for the auto workers, giving them a seemingly crazy amount of job security. But in the long run, it drove the automakers off a fiscal cliff, resulting in the bankruptcy of two of them, and in turn requiring taxpayers to pay massive amounts of subsidies to keep the companies alive.

Second, the right to free association applies to all parties. You and your friends are free to form a club, free from any interference by me. But I have the same right to refuse to join, no matter how much you might think it would benefit me to be a member. Similarly with unions: the right of private-sector workers is sacrosanct, and nobody — least of all I — proposes to take it away. But the right to opt out of the union should therefore be recognized as equally sacrosanct.

Workers who are pro-Second Amendment find with alarm that their dues fund politicians intent on ending gun rights.

To this, union apologists offer the freedom-to-contract argument: workers and management have the right to contract freely, so if a company’s workers can get management to agree to a contract compelling all workers to support the union, the rest of us shouldn’t interfere. But the union apologists are intellectually dishonest here, since they support the federal law that prohibits “yellow dog” contracts — that is, contracts that forbid unionization. If there is freedom of contract, then yellow dog contracts should be allowed, too.

Finally, there is the point made by Thomas Jefferson: “To compel a man to furnish funds for the propagation of ideas he disbelieves and abhors is sinful and tyrannical.” Unions typically use worker dues for the lavish support of politicians and political organizations that are typically Left-liberal in orientation. So workers who are pro-life find with disgust that their dues go to support extreme pro-choice candidates, and workers who are pro-Second Amendment find with alarm that their dues fund politicians intent on ending gun rights.

More good news for worker freedom may be just around the corner: both Missouri and New Hampshire are considering RTW laws, and both have newly elected Republican governors who have indicated that they support free choice for workers.

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Gary Jason

I wish to thank you all for your comments. As it happens, years ago I wrote for this magazine an extended critique of closed (as well as union and agency) shops, and critiqued the standard libertarian take on the freedom to contract. You can find it in Liberty, January/February 2009, pp. 51-54 ("The Ethics of Closed Shops"). It is a much fuller exposition of this matter.

Scott Robinson

I pledge allegiance to the UAW
One worker under the mob
Paying nine dollars a month
For lobbying and double talk for us all.

Dear Gary,

What is very troubling is the false conception that we only have the right to work courtesy of a law. That being said, I don't know what the actual text of the law is. If it says that employers can't enter into contracts that violate the rights of the people to freely chose their jobs. And no person or persons other than the worker can negotiate their own employment contract. Of course, then if a group of workers voluntarily assemble to write their employment contracts for each member of the group, that's acceptable. Then comes the question of what if I accept an employment contract that is identical to the union's negotiated contract? How much different does it need to be? I think a good way to do it is to say that no employer may enter into a group employment contract. Every employee must negotiate their own employment contract.

Legal gets wordy fast,

Thomas Knapp

"An RTW law simply gives workers in any business where the workers are unionized the right not to support (i.e., join or pay dues to) the union."

That's the dishonest, anti-free-market way of putting it.

The honest, pro-free-market way of putting is that "right" to work laws forbid businesses to enter into contracts with unions as exclusive suppliers of labor.

"Right" to work laws are just another government intervention in markets, like any other.


Right-to-work laws are simply a partial antidote to the highly coercive National Labor Relations Act. If the NLRA were repealed, right-to-work laws would be unnecessary. Buyers and sellers of labor would be at liberty to negotiate on terms of their own choosing, rather than the terms dictated by the NLRB.

Jon Kalb

Right To Work laws have interested me because they are an attempt to be an antidote to the NLRA, but, by forbidding certain types of voluntary agreements, do so in anti-liberty way. The goal is reasonable, but the means are un-libertarian.

This is an important point because libertarianism is about means not ends.

I'm torn because I think the laws move us closer to a free society, but in a way that can't be morally justified.

But if a RTW law was proposed that said that a worker couldn't be compelled to join an NLRA sanctioned union, I wouldn't find it objectionable because the special legal privileges of such an organization mean that it isn't a voluntary organization. It owes its existence to the state and is effectively an extension of the government.

Such a law wouldn't be saying that companies are forbidden to make exclusive contracts with a voluntary labor union, they would be saying that companies cannot be compelled to make such agreements with an organization that exercises the coercive powers of the state.

The end result, of course would be the same because, as far as I know, there are no labor unions that do not use the powers granted to them by the NLRA.

Of course, not RTW law will ever be written that way, because no one cares about the support of hard core libertarians in such matters.

Scott Robinson

Dear Jon,

Your comment reflects the problem that I saw in my comment. How do you allow workers to make their own employment contract AND allow them to voluntarily form a union that gives them more voice as a group? I think that saying that every employment contract has to be reached on an individual basis. If the workers unionize, they must all come to an agreement for what their employment contract will be amongst other union members and then it is dependent on each employee to individually only accept the union agreed to contract. I do think unions are an ironic exception to anti-trust law since they can monopolize all of a category of laborer.

Best Wishes,

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