Promoting Worker Agency and Self-Government
In the years since President Ronald Reagan left office, conservative policymakers have had some success speaking to Americans as believers, as families, and as American citizens. But in the economic realm, their message has often spoken to Americans only as owners: especially small business owners, but also other entrepreneurs and even independent contractors. As conservatives grapple with the ways the economy has failed families in recent decades and build a broader coalition that draws heavily on the working class, they must remember how to speak to Americans directly as workers.
The key theme—both philosophically and politically—for conservatives to recover is agency, defined as participation in the charting of one’s life course. Broadly speaking, agency is not exclusively or even primarily economic; man does not live by bread alone. A truly conservative vision for human agency promotes the citizen’s ability to provide for himself and others as he desires, and encourages virtue to order those desires towards honoring God, forming and supporting a family, and building up his community.
Agency is bound up with self-government. Yes, self-government tends to be efficient economically, and it tends to be satisfying, but even more profoundly, it is edifying: It positionscitizens to consider the common good of the polity alongside (and in relation to) their personal goods. As our American tradition has discerned, for citizens to value the common good, they need some share in influencing it. Sound public policy therefore protects the institutions by which individual influence becomes possible—restoring federalism; reviving the organs of civil society; respecting the autonomy of the church; protecting the integrity of the family.
Viewed through this self-government lens, labor policy is concerned with creating or reinforcing structures through which Americans as workers participate in the common good.
Conservatives have long appreciated that workers include working owners, especially small business owners and independent contractors. A healthy labor policy respects the agency of working owners and gives them substantial latitude to determine the ways in which their small businesses’ work will be done. To protect that agency, conservatives should push for a “small business tier” for federal regulations, to give smaller organizations—as well as state and local governments—more space for self-government. In the same vein, conservative labor policy should streamline access to working ownership, including: bright-line standards for independent contractor status; simplified rules for workers to buy into employee stock ownership plans; and association health plans or other civil-society-based “pools” through which working owners can access benefits often difficult to obtain outside of employee status.
But most working Americans today are not owners and do not aspire to be owners. For them, the policy focus must be on the structures through which they can participate in the common good as wage-earning employees. And “participate in the common good” is a capacious phrase: It means “seek good compensation” and “seek respect” and “influence the enterprise’s objectives” and “learn to appreciate how one’s own work contributes to those objectives.”
Conservatives already embrace at least two structures that support employee participation in the common good. The first is small business, simply because it operates at a scale where worker interaction with owners can be routine, and where each worker’s contribution to the joint enterprise represents a substantial share of the whole. The second is works councils, defined as workplace committees (sometimes employer-funded) where employee representatives are empowered to discuss issues of common concern with management, in a posture neither asymmetric, as with an individual employee approaching leadership, nor adversarial, as in collective bargaining. (In large public companies, that line of communication could be reinforced even further by letting employees select a representative to participate in meetings of the board.)
But what about labor unions? Conservatives rightly have long rejected the union as a constructive institution for labor policy, but it’s important to clarify why that’s the case. In principle, unions should present an opportunity for wage-earner participation in the common good. But in practice, modern unions in the American private sector are beset by serious agency problems that limit their effectiveness as institutions for individual workers to share in the common good. These problems thus present policy opportunities for conservatives who want to restore worker agency.
First, American collective bargaining is too adversarial. Understandably, unions tend to be major pain points for employers; one prominent reason is that employers have little to gain from engagement. Federal and state employment laws have set a very high “floor” for the terms and conditions of employment, from which unions can only negotiate up. If those laws were amended so that, for unionized workplaces, workers and employers could agree to adjust regulations, workers would enjoy greater agency and employers would have something to discuss. In the spirit of self-government, workplace regulation could be brought down from broad one-size-fits-alls to rules tailored to local conditions. (For example, a union might assent to relaxing the overtime threshold to 45- or 50-hour weeks in exchange for more predictable scheduling of hours. Or labor-management grievance committees could adjudicate EEO complaints with only limited judicial review.)
Another way to hem in adversarial positioning would be to expand unions’ legal latitude to administer benefits and social insurance, detaching some terms of compensation from any particular workplace. Rather than only impose, a union would take tasks off the employer’s plate and return them to workers’ control—likely still with employer funding. Once again, worker agency and self-government would grow.
Second, unions are not accountable enough to their members. This disconnect is most obvious from unions’ political activity. The typical blue-collar union member’s voice is not reflected in the union leader who praises abortion access or job-squeezing environmental mandates; his desire for self-government is stymied by routing his dues to progressive war chests.
The reasons for that all-too-common disconnect are complex, including unions’ internal incentive structures, the realities of coalition politics, and the fact that union leaders commonly regard themselves as adjuncts of the same managerial class that dominates big business, the administrative state, and the institutions of culture. Conservatives should explore structural reforms like heightened fiduciary responsibilities of leaders to union members, and expanding both public and private enforcement of those duties. They might also consider defining the scope of union activities to preclude such politicking, or else create an alternative form of apolitical union that workers would likely prefer.
By approaching labor policy only in the negative, conservatives have lost a vital channel to engage workers and their aspirations. An agenda limited to getting workers out of unions, repealing Davis-Bacon, and watering down registered apprenticeships lacks broad appeal. And, understandably, it has yet to deliver reforms to the institutions closest to workers. If we think instead about labor policy as an opportunity to build, we can ensure that workers have the kind of freedom they need to flourish.