All Commentary
Friday, May 1, 1981

Adversary Unionism

Dr. Nelson is Professor of Philosophy st the University of Colorado where he has taught since 1950.

I should not want to maintain that all unionism is or has been adversary in character. In the past, the unionism of company unions perhaps was not, nor the unionism of the medieval guilds. It may be that Japanese unionism is not. It may be that Russian soviet unionism is not. I shall refer only to Western, “free world” unionism, especially as represented by unionism in the United States.

With those limitations understood, I think it is largely a truism that contemporary unionism is adversary in character and is so recognized to be, not only in the peculiar structure of the various laws (Wagner Act, Taft-Hartley Act) and governmental decrees (NLRB decisions) covering the subject but in the minds of laymen, employers, union members and union leaders alike. Thus, there had to appear something contradictory in the recent election of United Auto Workers President Douglas A. Fraser to Chrysler’s Board of Directors but not in his statement that his new role would “not alter the traditional adversary relationship between the UAW and the auto companies” (UPI, 5/14/80).

The term “adversary” signifies “having an opposing party.” As the adjective “adversary” is applied in contemporary references to unions by union leaders, the constitution of unions, those dealing in government with unions, labor relations theorists, and so on, Marxian and related ideologies often play a significant role. The notion of “opposing party” is pretty much merged with that of “enemy.” Thus, typically, a union conceives and represents itself as protecting and defending the rights and interests of employees and the same as being necessarily threatened and attacked by employers. It is, for instance, on the ground that employers are intrinsically the enemy of the worker that unions not only justify their existence but the various coercive and war-like practices that they everywhere engage in: forced membership, strikes, the use of goon squads, and so on.

Constitutional Rights Violated

It is on the same ground, with the added one that employers are in a position of unfair strength, that twentieth century legislation has consistently violated and shelved such basic constitutional rights of employers as those of contracting with whom they please and free speech. Employers, for example, are disallowed by law from saying what they think of unionism to their employees.

We should not, therefore, be unreasonable in describing contemporary unionism as being “essentially” adversary in character, where “adversary” is to be understood in some such strong sense as, for instance, “enemy-related,” and “essentially” in its strict philosophic sense. For suppose contemporary unionism divested itself in act and thought of the claim that the relationship between employer and employee was “enemy-related,” it should simply not be recognizable as itself.

For our present purposes, however, we need not insist on the whole truth. It will suffice to treat the “adversary relation” defining contemporary unionism in terms merely of “intrinsically opposed”, i.e., in objectives, in interests. I can imagine no defender of contemporary unionism either wanting or being able to disagree with this version of the adversary relation.

Given this very weak interpretation of “adversary relation,” which hardly does justice to the fierce actualities, I intend to place unionism upon two scales: one measuring the legal coherency of unionism and the other its moral coherency. Somewhat arbitrarily, I shall weigh in the first scale the unionization of government employees and in the second the unionization of private employees (meaning by this: the employees of private enterprises). Probably the two scales could be switched around, though I do believe that the present distribution of scales and weighings has a certain natural appropriateness that will become apparent.

The Unionization of Government Employees

One is vaguely aware that something perverse is going on when municipal, state, or federal employees strike; garbage piles up high; mail is not delivered (during the first Canadian postal strike one even saw mail being burned in the streets of

Montreal by postal employees); firemen refuse to put out fires (or even set them themselves), and so on. The feeling is justifiably present that one is like a person who has been bound and gagged and while helplessly prostrate is assaulted with legal immunity. For whatever the laws themselves may say, it is a commonplace of the contemporary scene that these terrifying activities of government employee unions take place and are allowed to take place.

When the strike that happens to be aggrieving one has ended one’s natural inclination is to suppose that everything has returned to a happy state of normalcy. One says, “The unions sometimes go to extremes. There ought to be laws against government employees striking [but there already are]. Then everything will be O.K.”

It seems to be seldom realized that as long as government employees may legally band together under the adversary relation of contemporary unionism such grievous violence is bound to take place. For laws to declare both that governmental employees may unionize (I shall consistently use this term in its present connotations) and that they may not strike or employ goon squads or other supplementary violence amounts at one and the same time to sanctioning the view that government employees are a class of persons needing protection against an unfair, stronger party opposed to them (hence the right to coercively organize, to coercively collectively bargain, and the like) and that they may not take certain other coercive action, e.g., strikes, use of goon squads, and so on, necessary to effectuate their protection against that unfair, stronger party which opposes them.

Naturally enough, this incoherent injunction is rejected with a clear conscience by union members and leadership and not insisted on by the public. Even third party arbitration will seem to offer no effective alternative, unless it is not really third party at all but safely committed to the union side. For in the economic realm there can really be no true third party: there exist but em ployees and employers. Thus the simple truth is: if government employees are legally entitled to unionize they are entitled to strike, to use goon squads, and so on. This is a practical tautology and in the last analysis everyone recognizes it as such.

Who Is the Employer?

What is not often enough or seriously enough considered is the claim that government employees have a legal right to unionize. But just here the most serious question is in order. For what the adversary principle which underlies and sanctions this unionization dictates is that the employer of government employees is an opposing and even inimical party. But who is the employer? In a republican form of government like our own the sovereign is the people. The school boards, legislatures, city councils, executive officers, courts, various bureaus of government that nominally do the hiring are agents of the sovereign people; thus, they are not the true employer; the sovereign people are (as when I purchase a house through an intermediary I am the true purchaser, not the intermediary). It follows from the adversary principle, therefore, that unionized government employees must be conceived and conceive themselves as being opposed by the sovereign people and consequently themselves as opposing and being aligned against the sovereign people.

Now it is simple legal nonsense to suppose that the agents of a sovereign should be entitled to hire as employees of the sovereign persons opposed by definition and dedication to him. It is compound nonsense to suppose that any group under a sovereign is legally entitled to align itself, much less employ force, against the sovereign. Only another sovereign can claim such a power.

In sanctioning the unionization of government employees, then, legislatures, courts, executive branches of government, and the like either engage in the legal absurdity of sanctioning subjects of the sovereign of which they are the agents in aligning themselves, and even using force, against that same sovereign or they in effect set up a sovereign independent of the sovereign whom they represent which is aligned by definition and dedication against him. In either case, the representatives or agents of the sovereign people do what they cannot legally do: they betray the client whom they represent; and since this is their sovereign, they in effect engage in treason; for in its broad, general sense “treason” denotes a breach of allegiance to one’s sovereign.

An Illogical Position

As for the unionized employees of government themselves—I mean those who voluntarily unionize—they too do what they legally cannot do. In aligning themselves against their sovereign they assume the role of independent sovereigns. Indeed, in levying the sorts of demands that they customarily do, saying that unless this or that exaction be granted they will cut off this or that public service, they act as if they were the rulers of their sovereign. Thus, their actions and professions are the reverse side of the legal nonsense engaged in by legislatures and courts that sanction the unionization of government employees. Nor can it convincingly be objected that the sovereign or people have granted their employees these rights and powers by virtue of the fact that those legislatures and courts are their agents. For in a republican form of government the people cannot alienate their own sovereignty.

But shall we want, then, to maintain that unionized government employees engage, like those who sanction their unionization, in treason? One is, I admit, disinclined to render such a harsh verdict. Certainly, for instance, we do not want to say that anarchists and others who oppose the government or the very existence of government are necessarily engaged in treason. And there is some good reason for our not wanting to. The basis of government in a Republic is presumed to be consent of the governed. Presumably, therefore, a person who refuses to give his assent to be governed—say, an anarchist—is not really the subject of a sovereign. Thus, though he may engage in war against our sovereign he cannot be said to be engaged in treason, since our sovereign is not his sovereign.

Actually, however, the case of the anarchist and the case of the unionized government employee are entirely different. The anarchist does not in theory and need not in practice avow himself a subject of any sovereign. The unionized government employee in a Republic, and in this argument I am limiting reference to sovereignty under a Republic, cannot possibly claim that he has not avowed himself a subject of the people’s sovereignty. He did so when he claimed, as a citizen, the right to unionize. He did so when he voted to unionize and claimed that his vote had a certain status under law. He did so when he hired himself out, under the status of being a citizen, to the government. One cannot have one’s cake and eat it too!

Thus, a first impression to the contrary notwithstanding, the unionized government employee—again, I mean the employee who has voluntarily unionized—is, just as much as the legislatures and courts that sanctioned his unionization, engaged in a breach of allegiance to his sovereign and therefore, strictly speaking, in treason. But it is, on the face of it, legally incoherent for anyone to claim to have the right to engage in treason. Thus, on all counts, the unionization of government employees has to be legally incoherent.

The Unionization of Private Employees

The common moral and legal objection to the unionization of private employees is that it abrogates the individual’s moral and constitutional rights of contract. And patently that is true. It would remain true, moreover, even if unions did not allow themselves the use of strikes, goon squads, and other supplementary violence. Their very subscription to coercive membership and coercive collective bargaining (can there be any other species of it?) is both in fact and in intent an abrogation of the right of individual contract.

Persons today are so inured, however, to constitutional and moral breaches of the right of contract by all agencies of government, and in particular its courts, it hardly excites even the batting of an eye to note another occurrence of it. In addition, it has always been recognized that there are certain things that one cannot legally or morally contract; for example, the commission of a crime. With a seeming legitimacy, therefore, government can always make it appear that a restriction upon individual contract is justified by making a certain action illegal.

To be sure, in many such cases a cart is being put before the horse. Mere statutory law is being allowed to in effect amend the constitution and determine constitutional law. It is not, though, always easy to determine just when this switch of cart and horse has taken place. Imperceptibly, merely eccentric viewpoints harden into moral standpoints and then it may seem that a new restriction upon individual contract is the cart following the horse: that it has been dictated by a more privileged concern.

It is my impression, consequently, that attempting to rest the case against the unionization of private employees upon the right of individual contract is not likely to have much success. But even if the attempt were to succeed it seems to me that an attack from our previous direction must be much more conclusive. To be sure, questions of sovereignty and treason are not involved in the unionization of private employees. But the adversary principle is, and once again we shall find it creating insupportable incoherencies, though these will now prove to be more moral than legal in character.

How Government Intervenes

The unionization of private employees rests upon the sanction of society and government. These decree that certain conditions having been met—a majority vote of the employees, for example—the employer is required to accept the unionization of his “shop.” If he were not required by law to do so and if he were protected by law and government or even society in his refusal to do so his employees would obviously not be unionized. The fact that employers are forced by government and law to accept and hire unionized workers is what we want to keep our eye on.

Now, we have already seen that unionization is based on the adversary principle. Once, then, an employer’s working force is unionized we have a body of employees whose aims and interests are conceived as being intrinsically opposed to those of the employer. Even if he is not conceived to be their enemy (and typically he is by union leadership and union principle) he is conceived to be their opponent and vice versa.

As an illustration of the rational absurdity of this enforced condition, suppose that when one hired a certain lawyer to defend one in a suit the lawyer publicly represented himself as having interests and aims opposed to one’s own in the suit and acted accordingly. Clearly he would be guilty of malpractice and certainly one should want to dismiss him. Imagine, then, that one could not; that one was forced by law and government to retain and use this lawyer who avowedly conceived his interest and aims to be opposed to one’s own and who was acting accordingly! This would be tantamount to forcing a person to sanction his own self-destruction. It would not only constitute the crime of using the law and agencies of an innocent person’s own government to injure him but the completely unnatural indignity of making him lend a hand in his own injury. Visibly, this would be a piece of immorality in its most detestable form.

Now the employer who is forced to accept the unionization of his workers is in precisely the same position as the client who is forced to retain a lawyer who is avowedly and in fact pursuing interests and aims opposed to his own. In so forcing him the employer’s own government is not only injuring him but forcing him to lend a hand to his own injury. We might add that it is not only government which is guilty of monstrous injustice and immorality in this case but all the employees who are voluntary parties to the unionization in question. They are active and knowing parties to the crime. They would be more honest and excusable if they simply conducted a lynching.

It will be retorted, no doubt: “But the truth is that the employer and employees’ interests and aims are opposed. Unionization simply takes account of this fact.” But that is wrong. An employer and employee’s interests and aims are no more opposed than a client’s and his law yer’s. When a lawyer hires out to a client it is mutually understood that while engaged in working for the client the client’s interest is the lawyer’s.

When a person hires out to any employer it rationally has to be his understanding that, while at work, the employer’s interest is his interest. To the objection that the employer wants to pay the employee as little as possible and the employee wants to be paid as much as possible we should want to point out that what we have here is a theoretical picture of hiring phenomena which is based upon a view of persons which conceives of them as economic computing machines: a far cry from actual persons! But even were this in actual practice the case, it would not invalidate the claim that the only moral and reasonable relation obtaining between employer and employee is one in which, for a certain recompense, the latter makes the interests of the former temporarily his own.


If we have been correct in our reasoning, the unionization of government employees stands as sheer legal depravity and the unionization of private employees as sheer moral depravity. In both cases rational in-coherency is foisted upon a society of potentially moral and law-abiding individuals and upon some of their most basic inter-relationships. It is no wonder at all, therefore, thatin whatever society adversary unionization exists or is allowed to exist that society visibly sickens in proportion as unionization spreads and that pride of work, self-esteem, and production decline in tandem.

What seems to be too little recognized is that while unionization’s adversary—whether the public or the private employer—suffers greatly, no one suffers quite such injury and hemorrhage as the unionized employee himself. We may, I think, state it as an inexorable fact that no unionized employee can be content with his work or with himself. We may, I think, state it as an inexorable fact, everywhere confirmed, that he has to find gaining a livelihood changed from a challenge and adventure and accomplishment into a drudgery as meaningless and vexatious as slavery. This has to be, for in the same way that legal incoherency makes whatever it touches difficult and unpleasant so must moral incoherency.