Hofstra Labor & Employment Law Journal


Peter Levine


Labor unions do not have a well-understood rationale, as do capitalist enterprises, strictly voluntary associations, and democratic states. They are nonprofit associations, but also coercive economic agents; working-class communities, but also powerful special interests; embodiments of rights, but also incompatible with certain individual freedoms. These tensions result in an ambivalent legal status. For instance, unions may collect fees from (and negotiate contracts for) certain employees without obtaining their individual consent, yet no one can be required to belong to a union. Unions are exempt from antitrust laws and may restrain competition, but only in particular ways. We cannot assess these rules unless we have a convincing philosophical justification of unions in hand. This justification must answer utilitarian arguments that unions undermine social welfare by hampering the efficiency of markets; libertarian objections that unions override individual rights of expression and contract; and democratic complaints that unions (being economic "special interests") are less legitimate than elected governments are. This article argues that unions are valuable parts of civil society and are morally legitimate as economic and political actors. Indeed, it would be desirable to ease certain obstacles to union growth by reforming labor law.

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