The "right" not to join a union


Dean Zarras, of the Civil Society Trust, has made a momentous discovery, a philosophical leap of world-historical importance that will crush the labor movement once and for all and ensure a peaceful future of corporate hegemony. Or that's how he tells it, anyway.

In a recent column, Mr. Zarras revealed the one simple question that will crush any union drive and confound any organizer:

"Do you support workers' rights, specifically the right not to join a union?"

The insistence with which he repeats the question throughout his column suggests that he is pleased as punch (but not the red kind!) to have discovered this magic union-busting bullet. If he were a "labor boss," Mr. Zarras claims, he'd have no counter-argument. I have a response, though, and since Mr. Zarras challenged his readers to grapple ideologically with the question, I thought I'd share it.

When we talk about rights in America, we usually mean the right to do something (to speak freely, to assemble peaceably) or the right not to have something done to us (protection from warrantless search and seizure, or from cruel and unusual punishment).

Reformulating Mr. Zarras's question as a positive right or passive protection would look something like this:

"Do you support a worker's right to work longer hours for less money, with no job security and no say in his or her working conditions?"

Or perhaps:

"Do you support a worker's right not to have someone fight on his or her behalf?"

How generous, how utterly altruistic, of our corporate benefactors to secure for us these elementary liberties! Heaven forbid that some tyrant forces upon us the totalitarian hell of paid sick leave, vacation time, health care and job security. As a free people, we will not allow anyone to goose-step us into having a voice or standing up for ourselves.

If the anti-labor crowd wants to defend our right not join a union, there are a few other basic rights they might consider adding to their platform: the right to eat contaminated meat, or use uninspected drugs; the right not to have the EPA preventing us from drinking toxic industrial run-off; the right not to have a government that represents the interests of the working people who make up the vast majority of this country's citizens.

This is not, as Mr. Zarras seems to think, a question of individual liberty, of independence, of the right to "control one's own compensation through one's own effort and results." It is a question of the right of the working class to organize its own protection from the rapacity of a powerful, wealthy and organized capitalist class. In the end, in its simplest form, behind all the empty noise about initiative and freedom, his question is this:

"Do you support a worker's right to have no rights except those graciously bestowed by management?"

No, Mr. Zarras, I do not.

Photo: Workers and their allies celebrate union rights. PW // CC 2.0

Post your comment

Comments are moderated. See guidelines here.


  • Workers have the right to withhold their labor. Unless you're talking about a union collectively going on strike, right? I love the way free marketeers pretend that changing jobs is just as simple as changing shoes.

    Posted by Robert Spicer, 07/10/2011 4:06pm (4 years ago)

  • “Do you support a worker’s right to have no rights except those graciously bestowed by management?”

    I don’t either, Mr. Wallace.

    In fact, the workers retain the ultimate right over management, which is the right to not provide their labor (can we agree that we’re ruling out slavery here?). At the most fundamental level, we should be talking about free trade here: a person exchanging their labor for an employer’s paycheck because both parties are made better off as a result, with no third party leaning on one side or the other, AND no third party’s rights being trampled in the process.

    But your reformulations of my article’s question are straw men, so allow me to knock them down:

    Who would “work longer hours for less money?” Unless there were no alternative… in which case having ANY possible job opportunity might be welcomed. So let’s talk sometime about reducing barriers to creating new businesses. By the way, this would also apply to the minimum wage. Let’s talk about the high double digit unemployment rates amongst younger people where the first rung on the economic ladder has been moved way out of reach, where the true “compensation” of the job might not actually be the paycheck, but all of the discipline and skills required (and acquired!) simply to please a customer and/or employer and to actually hold a job: responsibility, punctuality, friendliness, self-discipline, self-control, good communication skills, etc, etc , etc.

    Who would prefer “no job security, or no say in his or her working conditions?” Again, competent management should expect workers to walk under these conditions. Why does it take a union to see that these things exist? Maybe it did years ago — but it’s 2011 now.

    As far as having someone “fight on his or her behalf”, isn’t this what the entire legal industry is for? I’ll admit that I could see union dues as a kind of “legal services insurance” that might provide for this should it be needed. But it seems like unless this “fighting” is taking place on a much bigger scale than I’m aware of, unions are over-collecting. Oh wait, those campaign contributions….

    Are you really suggesting that in today’s times, the only way to have “paid sick leave, vacation time, health care and job security” is through unions? Isn’t the ultimate job security found in maintaining a skill set that more than one potential employer would find valuable?

    Regarding expanding the platform: “the right to eat contaminated meat, or use uninspected drugs; the right not to have the EPA preventing us from drinking toxic industrial run-off”…. Are you suggesting that if government did not address these needs, no other private organizations would emerge to provide those services?

    It seems like there would be a huge market for them, so in fact, many companies might emerge to provide these services to all different degrees. Seeing such a need, you might even round up some friends and start such a company yourself. Then you’d be “management”, with the opportunity to run the company any way you wanted, and in a way that all of your employees would love, I’d presume — which then begs the question: How would you then feel if they insisted on forming a union? What kind of signal to you would that be?

    Regarding your last “basic right” example, I’m assuming you have an accidental “not’ in here: “the right [not] to have a government that represents the interests of the working people who make up the vast majority of this country’s citizens.”

    We the people have created the government we have. We’ve elected all the officials and have sat back and watched as various laws, programs, functions and entire departments are created and funded. If it doesn’t represent “working people” (and I’m going to insist that the definition of “working people” has no income limit to it), then indeed that’s a real problem, one that I’ll fight vigorously to fix.

    Please note also that I’ll vigorously support the elimination of all special benefits doled out to companies and industries by Congressmen and Senators via ignoring the Constitution. This creates “crony capitalism”, which I truly believe you are confusing for “capitalism” — they’re completely different. The former is what we have in the US, and the latter is what we’d have if we largely left people alone.

    Lastly, I have absolutely no problem with the “working class” being able to organize on its own. But I have a big problem with using the force of government to insist that certain people organize in certain ways, and I have a bigger problem with the resulting “class” mentality that this naturally creates. I’ll also point out your tacit acknowledgement of the importance of capital — it takes both labor AND capital to create a successful business, but since labor can withhold its participation under free trade, there should be no “rapacity” about the relationship between the two.

    So go ahead and start that union Mr. Wallace… just don’t force me to join it. And if you secure benefits for yourself through it, I promise not to ask of them for myself.

    Posted by Dean Zarras, 07/04/2011 9:24am (4 years ago)

RSS feed for comments on this page | RSS feed for all comments