AS A CONSERVATIVE who cherishes liberty above every secular value, I honor the labor movement. No society is free if its workers cannot organize to bargain collectively. The right to form independent trade unions, like the right to speak freely or to refuse unreasonable searches, is a hallmark of democracy. Sometimes, even, a bringer of democracy: It was in Poland, where workers stood together in Solidarity and fearlessness, that the Iron Curtain first corroded.
But freedom runs in both directions or it isn't freedom. I am free to join a union only if I am equally free not to join one. And as a conservative who cherishes liberty, I wonder just when it was that the labor movement abandoned that principle and embraced instead the tactics of force and repression that once were used to keep unions down.
Who is the enemy of labor? Once upon a time it was the employer who fired workers for union activism, the judge who forbade them to go out on strike, the company that made them slave in deplorable conditions. Today, Big Labor is more likely to aim its wrath at workers who choose not to join unions.
In workplace after workplace, the "union shop" has become entrenched. Employees are made to pay union dues as a condition of holding their jobs. Often, to lock such provisions into a contract, unions will bargain away higher wages or better conditions. Only in the 21 states that have passed "right to work" laws are employees shielded from compulsory unionism. Somehow, in the 101 years since Labor Day first became a national holiday, the noblest goal of the labor movement -- that workers should be empowered to shape their own destiny -- has been turned inside out.
Is it any surprise that unions have lost the affection they once commanded? In droves, Americans have stopped looking for the union label or carrying the union card. In 1945, 35 percent of US workers belonged to unions; today, less than 16 percent do. In the private sector especially, unions have been abandoned en masse. Only 10 percent of nongovernment employees in this country still belong to unions.
With fewer and fewer Americans joining them voluntarily, unions have adopted the "necessity of coercion." The phrase is that of a former Harvard instructor, who told the Associated Press in 1985 that "in order to maintain themselves, unions have got to have some ability to strap their members to the mast . . . to hold their members' feet to the fire when times get tough."
Words of an antiunion agitator? Hardly. The speaker was Robert Reich, now the US secretary of labor.
Lashing Americans to a mast was not one of the dreams of the labor movement's pioneers. "I want to urge devotion to the fundamentals of human liberty -- the principles of voluntarism," said Samuel Gompers, the founder and leader of the American Federation of Labor. "No lasting gain has ever come from compulsion. If we seek to force, we but tear apart that which, united, is invincible."
In defense of the union shop, labor bosses make a free-rider argument: It would be unfair to allow an employee to enjoy the benefits of union representation, they say, yet not pay dues to support the union.
But forcing a worker to pay for representation he doesn't want and can't refuse is no benefit. "It's like throwing someone in the back of a car," says Martin Fox, an official of the National Right to Work Committee, "driving him across town, dumping him out, and then demanding cab fare." The committee is pressing Congress to approve S. 581, repealing the language in the 1935 Wagner Act that legalized the union shop. If this National Right to Work Bill passes, unions could no longer threaten to have an employee fired for failing to join a union.
Union membership freely chosen is one of the glories of democracy; union membership forced down a worker's throat is odious. Those sentiments are shared by the vast majority of Americans. In a nationwide poll just conducted by Political/Media Research, respondents were asked to choose among three workplace arrangements: (1) the closed shop (only union members can get a job); (2) the union shop (nonmembers can get a job, but must join the union once they are hired); (3) the open shop (individuals can hold a job whether they join the union or not). Support for an open shop: nearly 77 percent. Support for compulsory unionism: 17 percent. Polls in 1993, 1984, and 1980 asked the same question. The results were all but identical.
Labor unions have a lot to contend with these days. The planet's economy is being radically overhauled; like Newton's physics giving way to Einstein's, the universe in which the labor movement grew up is being re-created by history and technology. Much that unions long took for granted is growing obsolete.
What is not obsolete is freedom. That was the rock on which the trade unions were built: freedom for workers to organize, freedom for unions to bargain.
But either those freedoms are two-way or they are nonexistent. Unions can survive an economic revolution. But they are doomed if they persist in making fellow workers the enemy. Compulsory unionism is anti-freedom. That means -- by definition -- that it is anti-union.
(Jeff Jacoby is a columnist for The Boston Globe.)