Moral Aspects of Labour Unions

Since a labour union is a society, its moral aspects are determined by its constitution, its end, its results, and the means employed in pursuit of the end. If its constitution, that is, the conditions upon which its members become associated, be immoral, the society will be morally unlawful. For example, if the members were required to promise blind obedience to the leaders, if the rules called for an unlawful degree of secrecy in its affairs, or if one of the conditions of membership were the promise to support some illicit action or project, the society would be bad in its constitution. It would be under moral condemnation, regardless of its aims, practices, or results. As there is no evidence to show that the labour union of to-day is immoral in its constitution, we may dismiss this particular moral aspect and turn to the consideration of the other three.


The two general aims, ends, or objects of the union are mutual insurance and better conditions of employment. In the opinion and procedure of the unionists, the second is much the more important. Conditions of employment include wages, hours, sanitation, and safety, and several other circumstances that affect the welfare of the workers. Better conditions mean, in the consciousness of the unionist, not only better conditions than those now enjoyed, but better than he would have if the union did not exist. In other words, the union aims at safeguarding and increasing present benefits. Inasmuch as these benefits rarely exceed, and probably in the majority of instances still fall below, the amount to which labour is entitled in justice, this, the chief aim of the union, is morally justified. The morality of the insurance feature is obvious.

So much for the union in general with regard to its general aims. In any specific instance a union is justified in seeking advantages, whether of wages, hours, or other conditions, only when these are in accord with the law of right. If its members are already receiving all that they are morally entitled to, they of course do wrong when they use the power of their organization to extort more. For, contrary to the prevailing conceptions and the too frequent practice of the last century, there is an element of justice in the labour contract, and when either party deliberately ignores this factor, its aim is to that extent immoral. This is as true of an organization as of an individual. Though good in its constitution and end, the union might possibly be immoral on account of the disproportionate amount of evil to which it leads. It is doubtful whether any intelligent and unbiased observer would contend that this hypothesis is verified to-day. Although the evil effects of the union are frequent, and sometimes very serious, they seem to be, on the whole, morally outweighed by its good effects. "An overwhelming preponderance of testimony before the Industrial Commission indicates that the organization of labour has resulted in a marked improvement in the economic condition of the workers" (Final Report of the Industrial Commission, p. 802). And the good results obtained by organization are considerably enhanced by the fact that they could not have been secured in any other way. As Walker, a very conservative writer, puts it, "Nothing, economically speaking, can save economic society from progressive degradation except the spirit and power of the working classes to resist being crowded down" (Elementary Course in Political Economy, 266). A careful survey of the history of labour during the last one hundred years will show with abundant clearness that no entire grade or class of labourers has secured any important economic advantage except by its own organized resistance and aggressiveness. And practically every union has at some time protected the working conditions of its members against deterioration. These facts are merely a result of the system of unlimited competition, not a condemnation of the employing class. If anyone doubt that the evils resulting from the unions are less important morally, economically, and politically, than the benefits that they have produced, let him calmly survey the conditions that would exist in England to-day if the unions were still prohibited by law, as they were during the period of English "wage slavery", in the early decades of the nineteenth century. It is quite possible that individual unions are sometimes immoral, and as such forbidden to conscientious working-men, because the organization does more harm than good. This was probably true of the Western Federation of Miners in Colorado a few years ago.

The moral judgment to be passed upon unionism from the side of its results applies for the most part to the past. It cannot with certainty be applied to the future in order to determine whether a union or all unions are worthy of condemnation or of approval, except in so far as the past conduct of an organization may create a presumption for the time to come. If the judgment expressed in the last paragraph is sound, the presumption, therefore, is that the labour union in general will in the future be justified from the view-point of its results, and that it may claim the allegiance of conscientious men. And we have al ready seen that it is lawful in its general constitution and general aims.


While the union itself may be morally lawful in the sense just explained, many of its actions may be unlawful. This statement is obviously true of many social institutions. In the case of the labour union, the greater part of the moral condemnation that is pronounced has reference neither to its constitution, its general aims, nor its net results, hut to its actions. Since these have practical importance only in so far as they are characteristic and habitual, they will be most profit ably discussed under the head of methods or practices.

A. The Strike

This is probably the most important of the methods, from the side of morals. It can not be condemned absolutely, but it is an extreme method and ought not to be employed unless certain grave conditions are verified. Whether they are all present in a given case, is rarely easy, and sometimes impossible, to determine with certainty. At any rate, the following seem to be the general conditions that ought to be fulfilled before a strike can be justified objectively: The advantage which is sought by the workers must be one to which they have a lawful or equitable claim; a peaceful solution of the difficulty must have been tried and found ineffective; the grievance must outweigh the evil results that are likely to follow from the strike; and there must be good grounds for hoping that the strike will be successful. One of the good effects of well-established unions has been to lessen the number of strikes, and to moderate their excesses and abuses. Violence and the sympathetic strike are less frequent than formerly in connexion with the strike proper, but they are still so prominent as to deserve discussion. In so far as any attempt is made to justify the former, it is usually based on the claim that the labourer has a right to his job, or that he has at least the right to decent conditions of employment, and consequently that he may use force to protect this right against the unjust aggression of the man who has usurped it. From the nature of the case this so-called right to a job cannot be a right in the same sense as the right to a horse or a hat; for it lacks all the customary titles to physical property, and its object or content may be destroyed by a private individual even in the absence of extreme necessity of any sort. For example, the employer may go out of business, and thus abolish the job, without doing the labourer any injustice. At most, the right to a job is merely the right to continue economic relations with a particular employer. It is, consequently akin to the right of a merchant to the patronage of his customers, or the right of any man to pursue a lawful good by lawful means. Hence it is a right to a social relation, which leads to a material good, rather than a right to the material good itself. In a general way it is a right to liberty rather than to property; a right to pursue rather than a right to possess. Consequently, it may be violated as truly as the right to patronage is violated by an unjust boycott; as truly as the right to obtain a promised gift is violated through slander which prevents the would-be giver from carrying out his intention. The nature of the right to patronage will be discussed presently in connexion with the boycott.

Now it would seem that a right to his job in this sense of the phrase does inhere in the labourer who would suffer grave inconvenience if compelled to seek some other occupation; for example, a man with a family who owns a home where he works, and who would be unable to get employment at his trade from another employer in the same city, There is good reason to maintain that the employer who should discharge such an employee without grave reason would sin against not merely charity but justice. Conversely, cases can occur in which the labourers who quit their employer without a sufficiently grave reason will be guilty of injustice toward the latter. If these propositions are not sound, no boycott, however unreasonable, will be unjust merely because of the damage inflicted through the withdrawal of patronage. The labourers that take the places of the striking workers, who are assumed to have this right to their jobs, will likewise violate justice unless they have a sufficiently grave reason for the act. The right of the strikers to their jobs is not valid against other workers who are in grave need. For example, if the latter can not without great difficulty find employment else where, they will offend neither against charity nor justice when they take the places of the former; for they, no less than the strikers, have a right to seek and obtain a livelihood on reasonable terms. Both classes of workers are contending for advantages that both have a right to pursue, and their respective rights must be interpreted and determined by reference to their respective conditions and needs. Hence it may happen that the prior right of the old employees to their jobs will give way before the sufficiently grave needs of the new-comers. Thus far we have assumed that the employer is attempting to compel his old employees to accept unjust conditions, but that he accords full justice to the new ones. If, however, he is willing to treat the former justly they do wrong to strike, and their right to their jobs would seem, generally speaking, to be forfeited by such conduct. On the other hand, if the new men submit to unjust conditions, at least if they consent to work for less than living wages, they commit an illicit action, and consequently use immoral means to prevent the old employees from obtaining an advantage that the latter have a right to seek. And yet, the needs of the new men may be sufficiently grave to justify them in submitting to these harsh terms for themselves, and in depriving the older men of their jobs. Suppose, however, that the action of the new-comers finally results in the old employees, or some of them, returning to work on the old, unjust conditions. This is what usually happens when a strike is lost through the employment of new men. In this case the new men undoubtedly co-operate in producing an unjust effect, that is, in causing injustice to the old employees. The latter are unjustly treated, yet the instrumental agents of such injustice, namely, the new men, will be justified if their needs are such as to compel them to work under unsatisfactory terms. They sometimes lack such justification, particularly when they are professional "strike breakers", and when they would better their condition by holding off, and assisting the striking workers to obtain the just terms that are sought.

In view of the foregoing outline of the equities of the situation, the question concerning the morality of violent methods of supporting a strike may be answered somewhat as follows: As against the employer, the strikers have no right to destroy his property; for this is lawful only as one of the extreme measures of war, and a strike, no matter how just, has not the moral standing of a just war. As against the men who take the places of the strikers, no violence is lawful when the action of the former is justified by their own needs. Will it be lawful when there is no such justification? May not the strikers forcefully repel unjust assaults upon their rights to decent conditions of employment, just as a man may use force to withstand the attack of a burglar? Pottier hesitates about giving a categorical answer, contenting himself with the statement that force will certainly not be justifiable when less objectionable means would be effective, or when the good effects to be expected are not great and certain in proportion to the evil effects (De Jure et Justitia, pp. 228, 229). Now, it is certain that the good effects to be obtained through the use of violence are practically never sufficient to outweigh the evil effects; for the benefits that labour would thus secure are in significant compared with the social disorder and anarchy through which they would be obtained; The interests and rights of a class must yield before the interest and rights of the community.

The sympathetic strike occurs when labourers who have no personal grievance quit work in order to aid their fellows. It can be directed either against the employer of the latter, or against some other employer who is not concerned in the original dispute. We have an example of the first kind when the brakemen on a railway strike out of sympathy with the trackmen who have left work because they have been refused an increase in wages. If the cause of the trackmen is just, the brakemen will not be wrong in thus acting; for the employer's right to the continued services of the brakemen is valid only so long as he treats them reasonably, and does not use the advantages which he derives from their services for unreasonable ends. On the other hand, their obligation to continue at work ceases when a reasonable cause arises. Such a reasonable cause may well be at hand when their continuation at work becomes a means of assisting the employer in his unjust course towards the trackmen, while their withdrawal from his service will be effective in compelling him to do justice. Their obligation towards their employer gives way before their right morally to coerce him to grant justice to their fellows. If, indeed, they should quit work with out any reasonable cause whatever, they would be guilty of unreasonable interference with the employer's right to pursue the advantages to be derived from the railroad industry, but the cause of the unjustly treated trackmen may be sufficient to render the interference reasonable. It is on this principle that a strong nation or a strong man is justified in coming to the assistance of a weak nation or a weak man who is oppressed by a nation or man with whom the assisting power or person is at peace. When, however, the sympathetic strike is against another employer than the one concerned in the original dispute, when, for example, brickmakers quit work because their employer continues to furnish material to a builder whose employees are on a strike, it will ordinarily be contrary to both charity and justice. To be sure, there are extreme cases in which the unconcerned employer would be under an obligation of charity to assist the labourers who are involved in the first strike, by ceasing to have business intercourse with the off ending employer, but such cases would be of rare occurrence. Much rarer would be the situation in which a sympathetic strike against employers generally would be morally permissible. For the great body of employers and the general public are not reasonably treated when they are compelled to suffer so great in convenience in order that an offending employer may be coerced into reasonable treatment of a small section of the community. While we cannot be certain that a general strike is never justified, we can safely say that there is against it an overwhelming presumption.

B. The Boycott

In general the boycott is a concerted refusal to engage or continue in business or social intercourse with a person or corporation. Like the sympathetic strike, it is of two kinds, primary and secondary, or simple and compound.

The primary boycott is carried on against a person with whom the boycotters have had a dispute; the secondary against some person who refuses to join in the primary boycott. The morality of the primary boycott depends upon the grievance that the boycotters have against the boycotted, and the extent to which, and the means by which it is prosecuted. If the labourers have not been unfairly treated by the person with whom they are at variance, they commit injustice when they organize and carry on a boycott against him. It is true, indeed, that the employer or business man has no absolute right, nor any property right, to the patronage of his employees. The same principle applies to the merchant and his customers. Nevertheless both have a right that is valid as long as it is not forfeited by unreasonable conduct. The basis of this right is the same far-reaching principle that we noticed in connexion with the right of a man to his job, and of an unconcerned employer to the services of his employees who threaten to make him the victim of a secondary sympathetic strike. It is the principle that every man has the right to seek and material goods and opportunities on reasonable terms, and without unreasonable interference. Indeed, this is the real basis of even property rights, and the sole final justification of all the recognized property titles. Hence it is a violation of justice to deprive a man of the benefits of social or business intercourse without some sufficient reason. But there can be a sufficient reason. It will be present when the injustice inflicted by the employer is grave, and when no milder method will be effective. To deny this would be to maintain that the employer has a right to pursue his advantage in an unreasonable way, and immune from reasonable interference. The labourers are endowed with the same right of seeking material benefits on reasonable conditions and by reasonable methods; in this case the boycott is a reasonable method. After all, the boycott does not differ essentially from the strike, which is also a concerted refusal of intercourse. But the boycott must be kept within the limits of justice and charity in its process and extent. It must be free from violence and other immoral circumstances, and it must not be carried so far as to deny to its object the necessaries of life, or any of those acts of social intercourse which are demanded by the fundamental human relations — what the theologians call the "communia signa charitatis". For the sake of clearness and simplicity, the foregoing observations refer only to cases in which a boycotted employer is treating his employees unfairly; but it is obvious that lawful boycotts have a much wider application. When the cause and the need are sufficiently grave, the boycott may be employed with due moderation against any unreasonable conduct that inflicts harm, material, moral, or religious, upon a section of the community. Witness the boycotting of perverse newspapers and theatres.

The secondary boycott is directed, as already noted, against "innocent third persons", that is, those per sons who refuse to assist in the primary boycott. For example, the labourers refuse to buy from a merchant who will not discontinue his patronage of a manufacturer against whom they have a grievance. In principle it is the same as the secondary sympathetic strike, and in practice it is likewise immoral except in extreme cases. It is ordinarily immoral because it is an unreasonable interference with the right of the unconcerned person to pursue and possess the advantages of social or business intercourse with his fellows, that is, with the person who is originally boycotted and the boycotters themselves. It is an unreasonable interference because it subjects him to what is in most cases an unreasonable inconvenience, that is, the deprivation of intercourse with either the boycotted or the boycotters. This inconvenience is unreasonable be cause it is excessive as compared with the moral claims of the boycotters to the co-operation of the man who is compelled to suffer the inconvenience. That the former have a right to bestow their patronage where they please, is true as a general proposition, but the proposition is too general to reflect adequately the equities of the situation. Undoubtedly the labourers, or any other class of persons, are within their rights and exempt from moral censure when they transfer their patronage to some person whom they wish to favour; in the secondary boycott, however — and in the primary as well — the desire to help a friend is only incidental, while the intention to injure the boycotted person is direct and primary. This is not morally lawful unless the thing that they seek to compel him to do can be reasonably required of him. For example, when labourers withdraw their trade from a merchant because he refuses to refrain, at great financial loss, from patronizing a manufacturer who, we will suppose, is justly boycotted by the labourers and their friends, he is compelled to undergo a loss that is out of proportion to his duty of assisting the latter. His right to business intercourse on reasonable terms is violated.

On the other hand, cases do occur in which an unconcerned person may reasonably be required to give up the advantages of business relations with the man against whom tie primary boycott is directed, if he refuses, he may rightfully be made the object of a secondary boycott until he is ready to act reasonably. A clothing merchant who obstinately continues to buy his supplies from a boycotted manufacturer of "sweat shop" goods would seem to be a case in point. For the merchant can with no great inconvenience purchase his goods elsewhere, the manufacturer, it is assumed, rightly deserves to be boycotted, and the secondary boycott will not only tend to induce the merchant to assist the original boycott, but will directly and in itself increase the scope of the latter. Consequently the secondary boycott is not essentially and always wrong. Lawyers, and occasionally judges, condemn it on the ground that it involves threats, or that it causes injury to a man's business, or that it implies a conspiracy, but every one of these features is contained in a strike. Whatever may be the legal aspect of the matter, a threat is not morally wrong per se. Its morality depends upon what is threatened, and how, and why. Injuries indirectly caused, which is the case in strikes and boycotts, are justified whenever all the conditions are present which render morally lawful the performance of an action not bad in itself, but which produces both good and bad effects. The morality of a conspiracy is determined on the same principle. Although the Anthracite Coal Strike Commission denounced the secondary boycott unreservedly, the particularly immoral and cruel instances cited show that the commission had in mind the abuses of the practice rather than the practice itself. Nevertheless, the abuses seem to be so frequent in actual life that we cannot wonder at the attitude of those who wish to have the practice forbidden by positive law.

C. The Closed Shop, or the Union Shop

These phrases point to that method or policy of the unions by which their members refuse to work with non-unionists in the same establishment or employment. Now, if, as sometimes happens, the unions refuse to admit non-unionists to membership on reasonable terms, in order to monopolize the trade or employment, their action will, generally speaking, be uncharitable, if not unjust. But if the union is willing to admit all capable workers, and if it has a sufficient reason for pursuing the closed-shop policy, the latter will be neither unjust nor uncharitable. Among the considerations advanced in justification of the policy are the following: The non-unionist ought to help to defray the expenses of organization, from which he derives so much benefit; the presence of non-unionists in an establishment often prevents that peace and discipline which is one of the aims and results of an agreement between the union and the employer, and provokes constant bickering between the two classes of workers, and, most important of all, the average employer strives to supplant gradually the unionist employees or to reduce their wages to the lower level accepted by the non-unionists. In a word, the general defence of the closed-shop policy is that it is indispensable to effective organization. The employment inevitably tends to become all union, or all non-union. This defence may not be fully justified by the vital facts, but if it does give a true account of the situation, the closed-shop policy is justifiable; for, as a general rule, organization is necessary to obtain just conditions for labour. Of course there are exceptions to this rule. We speak here only of what generally happens, with out inquiring into the frequency of the exceptions. In so far as the closed shop is necessary as a means to reasonable conditions of employment, it will not be immoral, as against either the non-unionist or the employer. Neither is deprived of his right to enter economic relations and pursue his livelihood on reason able conditions. It is reasonable that the non-unionist should comply with that condition which alone makes justice possible for the mass of his fellow-workers, and it is unreasonable that he should desire to work as a non-unionist when such action tends to produce unjust circumstances for all. There are, indeed, cases in which the inconvenience of joining the union is great, as compared with the harm that would be done to the class through the opposite course. Membership in the union would then be an unreason able prerequisite to employment.

The closed-shop policy is often objected to, on the ground that it deprives the non-unionist of his natural right to work. In this assertion the right to work, which no one denies, and which cannot possibly be violated except by physical restraint, is confounded with the right to work in certain conditions and relations. The specific demand of the non-unionist is that he shall be permitted to work beside members of the union. If this were an unconditional right it would contradict and annul a similar right of the unionist, namely, the right not to work beside the former. One of these rights is no better than the other. In point of fact neither is genuine, for there can be no such prerogative as an unconditional right to a social relation. The right of a non-unionist to work in the same shop with a unionist is no more unconditional than the right to strike, to boycott, or to enter any social relation which requires the consent of the other party. It is conditioned by the circumstances, and it is valid only when these are reasonable. In the hypothesis that we are considering, membership in the union is such a reasonable condition, while refusal to enter is unreasonable. Hence, if the closed-shop policy is necessary in order to obtain proper conditions of employment for the body of the labourers, it will not violate the right of the non-unionist, even if it prevents him from obtaining any employment; for the right in question is dependent upon the contingency that it be exercised within reasonable limits. To deny this is implicitly to assert that the unionists are obliged to work in conditions that are unreasonable. Finally, the policy under discussion may properly be opposed by an employer who otherwise treats his employees fairly. Contrary to the impression that seems to be prevalent, the closed shop is not an innovation. It was enforced for centuries by the guilds, and for a long time in many places it was sanctioned and prescribed by civil legislation (Cf. Ashley, "English Economic History", I, 82). Practically speaking, the law forbade a man to work at his trade unless he belonged to the guild. What the civil law could then command, individuals can now with reason seek to obtain by persuasion, bargaining, and contract.

The methods and policies discussed in the foregoing pages exhibit all the more important moral aspects of the labour union. All these practices involve economic relations which are a means of obtaining material goods. If the relations were not necessary to this end, they could not become the basis of rights. Since they are necessary, they give rise to a right, which, like all other rights, is limited by the end to which it is a means, and is sufficiently realized when it can be exercised on reasonable terms. On this principle, and on this principle only, we justify every kind of right, whether to life, property, or liberty. And all that has been said in connexion with the strike, the boycott, and the closed shop, was merely an attempt to apply this general and far-reaching principle. To forestall misunderstanding, it may be well to note that every violation of justice through labour-union methods is also a violation of charity, and that charity may sometimes be offended without any breach of strict justice.

D. Limitation of Output and of Apprentices

The practice of restricting the amount of work to be per formed, or the quantity of product to be turned out by its members seems to be more frequent than the union is generally willing to admit. But it is probably less frequent than the opponents of the union assert. In itself this method is not wrong, and it may even be laudable. Competent authorities maintain that the exceptional workman is often constituted the pacemaker for all the others, and that the intensity of exertion demanded by many forms of high-speeded machinery has considerably reduced the working-life of the labourer (see Brooks, "The Social Unrest", 191; and "Final Report of the Industrial Commission", p. 733). In such cases the union does well to endeavour to keep the output of the average man down to an average reasonable limit. When the restriction goes beyond this, and is motived by indolence or by the desire of making a job last longer, it is clearly unjustifiable and dishonest. To the complaint of the employer that in many of the skilled trades the union will not permit the training of a sufficient number of apprentices, the unionist replies with a simple denial. The explanation of the difference between them is largely in their different standards of sufficiency. Both recognize that a scarcity of apprentices tends to make wages high, but they do not agree as to the point at which wages are sufficiently high. Since the employer is generally able to pass the extra cost of labour on to the consumer, he is not seriously injured, at least financially, by the practice. But the consumer suffers unjustly, if the supply of skilled workers is kept so low that their wages are unreasonably high. The workers who are able and willing to qualify for the trade are also injured, inasmuch as they are compelled to enter a lower and less remunerative occupation. At what precise point in the wage scale a real injustice is done the consumer, it is practically impossible to say; but, since such a point can be reached, since the men in those trades where limitation of apprentices is enforced are, as a rule, sufficiently organized to defend their just interests, and since a considerable injury is done to those who are excluded from the trade, the practice would seem to be of doubtful moral correctness. After all, a labour union can become a real monopoly, capable of practising extortion upon the community as truly, though not as extensively, as a monopoly of products.

While the unions are a necessity of our present industrial system, they are nevertheless, both in spirit and in many of their methods, a necessary evil. They are too often established and maintained on the theory or conviction that the competition between employer and employee is a veritable warfare, in which each is at liberty to strive for all that he can possibly secure, and in which the victory is always to the stronger force. If competition were restrained by law or by some other species of social control within the limits of reason and morality, if the taking of exorbitant profits and the reduction of wages below the level of decent living were alike rendered impossible, the union would still be desirable, indeed, just as organization is desirable for every class of men whose interests are common; but a far greater proportion of its activities could be devoted to mutual help, especially in the form of insurance, and a much smaller proportion to the struggle against the imposition of unfair terms, and to economic warfare generally. In that better, though still remote, day, most of the extreme methods of the union, such as the strike, the boycott, and the closed shop, could be discarded in favour of milder practices, such as collective bargaining, insurance, and education.

John A. Ryan.

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