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