The Legitimacy of Trade Unions


In The Legitimacy of Labor Unions, Peter Levine identifies three major moral debates against unions: utilitarian, libertarian, and democratic. He approaches those arguments from two angles. First, he takes unions as economic agents and assesses them based on efficiency and social welfare, rights and liberties, desert and dignity, and distributive justice. Then, he studies unions as parts of civil society. To do so, Levine considers five definitions of civil society: the voluntary sector, the home of community, the source of social capital, the realm of interest group politics, and public sphere. He concludes that union are at least as legitimate as other institutions.

You might also be interested in reading: Theories of Union Power


Utilitarian: Argues that unions, by protecting unproductive workers, disrupt the efficiency of the markets and thus, undermine social welfare.  

Libertarian: Argues that unions can obtain authority over all workers and override their individual rights of expression and contract, even if a minority of workers object. Even if one fee-paying member opposes the existence of her union, it is not voluntary. Moreover, it is doubtful if unions’ net effect is positive for the whole society or even for all their members.

Democratic: Argues that unions are ‘economic special interests’ and thus, are less legitimate than elected governments that represent all citizens.


  • Efficiency and Social Welfare

A fundamental theorem of mainstream economics is that under ideal conditions, free markets and competitions create the most efficient condition and produce Preto optimum. The key role of trade unions is to bargain on behalf of workers for better wages and condition of employment. In doing so, they alter the market and block the competition of individual workers. Therefore, they can be viewed as hampering the efficiency of the labour market.

A normative argument is that Pareto criterion is not an end (or good) in itself. In many situations, a society may transgress from it for better goods (e.g. taxing for health and education, etc.). Two groups may hold Preto criterion as a normative principle: anarchists and libertarians that are against state interventions; and moral sceptics who reject ideals such as justice, fairness, etc. as subjective and settle for more ‘scientific’ alternatives.

Moreover, by creating better working conditions, unions can make companies work better and thus, increase efficiency.

Assuming that wealth maximises in the absence of unions, then to support a utilitarian criticism, we have to assume money is a proxy for utility (aggregate happiness or preference-satisfaction). While money helps, it is not as important as social connections, such as marriage or employment. Unions can maximise this type of happiness or welfare.

  • Rights and Liberties

It seems possible to argue, based on Hobbes and Locke, that the limit to unions’ actions is their members’ natural rights. Unions’, at best, work based on a majority-rule, which may override minority rights and freedom, i.e. in terms of economic interests or freedom of conscience. John Dewey, however, makes distinction between natural rights and civil liberties and argues for the latter because they are ‘important means to the end of a just, good, or fair society’.

Levine pictures the alternative. An employer has, in Locke’s terms, ‘absolute, arbitrary power’ over workers and may fire them for complaining. Even the threat of termination can be coercive and constraining. The ways to overcome this situation is to unionise or to pass and enforce legislations, which is more complicated and less flexible than the former.

However, there is a scenario in which a worker’s wage rises to the point that she may find a better deal by negotiating directly with the employer. In such a case, unions are probably barriers to the worker’s right rather than being facilitators.

There is an argument that workers jobs are their property. Despite the lack of a universal or self-evident definition of “property”, some have argued that unions are better suited to defend this right of workers than the state. Levine suggests that the state is the authority to define the best system of ownership because unions are closed groups and do not necessarily represent the whole society. The decision cannot be left to the market because it takes the current system as its presupposition.

Levine further argues that if investors are free to form corporations, workers should have a similar right to form unions.

  • Desert and Dignity

We can view work as a commodity and hence, unions as combinations to increase the share of workers from their work. Whether workers deserve a wage rise depends on the particular circumstances.

We can also view work as ‘inherently valuable’. In this case, unions increase the dignity by differentiating them from tools and giving them control.

It is argued that unions protect lazy workers. A counterargument is that a lazy worker still works more than an investor (who earns several times more).

  • Distributive Justice

The redistributive effect of unions can be viewed from two angles:

–            Between workers and investor: in this sense the work of unions is easily defensible because a marginal dollar spent by workers can buy more basic goods than by an investor.

–            Between workers and other workers and consumers: Unions can shift money from non-unionised workers or consumers to unionised workers. Even it might be the case that if all workers are unionised, the gain by the strong unions comes at the expense of weak unions.

Levine argues that while the above might be true, at least unions advocate ‘economic justice and dignified work for all’.  Moreover, the work of unions and the threat of unionisation, can raise the condition of the non-unionised.


It has been argued that even the most democratic governments should not monopolise power. Private groups can form to undertake a part of public work and control the state. They are not necessarily ‘special’ interests but the form ‘civil society’.

We can view civil society as a morally neutral or positive. If it is positive, we should determine what factors are good and then, civil society should only include them.

  • The Voluntary Sector

It is possible to say that ‘the good in civil society is its voluntariness’. However, sometimes unions’ decisions create obligations for workers, with no room for them to escape, e.g. in agency shops where unions’ bargaining includes all employees.

Levine argues that such obligations creates a pressure on member to participate in the decisions. Moreover, trade unions are the type of institutions that requires members to conform to its norms.

  • The Home of Community

Civil society is the home of certain virtues, i.e. community and solidarity as opposed to individualism and selfishness. A community consists of a limited number of people, bound together emotionally in a limited space or network with shared understandings and obligations. Their relationships are close and often face-to-face. Unions often abide by this definition.

  • The Source of Social Capital

Civil society can generate ‘social capital’, which refers to ‘habits, skills, and attitudes that expedite collective action and lessen the burdens on government’.

Compared to those belonging to no groups, union members have more social capital. They are more likely to trust others, to be interested and involved in politics, to vote, to talk to several people about serious issues, to contact the government, to attend conferences, or to serve as committee members.

  • The Realm of Interest Group Politics

“Civil society” can also be viewed as ‘the domain of interest groups, political factions, or lobbies’. Since unions sometimes perform as interest groups and lobby politicians, they can belong to this definition.

By prioritising their interests over the common good, “factions” and political groups distort the public debate (Rousseau). However, pluralists or interest-group liberal argue that either the common good is unknowable or that it lies in a field of competing interest groups. A similar view argues that national interest exists and can be achieved through the debates of interest groups.

  • The Public Sphere

We can also view “civil society” as the public sphere, which is ‘the arena in which citizens gather information, form preferences about public policy, encounter alternative perspectives and arguments, and sometimes improve their views’.

If we accept the merit of deliberation, then barriers to exit can be good because they have more incentives to participate and make their opinions heard.


Having taken the two major approaches, Levine concludes that unions are at least as legitimate as other institutions are.


Levine, P (2001), ‘The Legitimacy of Labor Unions’, Hofstra Labor & Employment Law Journal, vol. 18, no. 2, pp. 527-571.



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