Why there is no “Right to work”


Monday’s repossession order, handed down by the Newport County Court in the Isle of Wight should signal the end of a two week sit-in by redundant workers at the Vestas wind turbine factory.

However, the socialist politician and (therefore presumably part-time) union leader Bob Crow has said that his RMT union “will continue with our campaign and the right to work on green energy jobs." There is an obvious mistake in this sentence (other than the structure) that is nonetheless all too common. It is the assumption, and then misunderstanding, of a “Right to work".

At the core is a more fundamental problem with the concepts of “rights" and “freedoms": what might also be called “positive rights" and “negative rights", though the latter terms can be taken to imply a value judgement and so will be generally avoided from here on in.

If by a “right to work on green energy jobs" Mr. Crow is suggesting that individuals (such as the redundant Vestas workers) should be free to work in companies that trade on their environmental benefits, he is of course correct. Indeed, whether it is the “right to work" in any particular sector, or the “right to work" in general (a more traditional cry of Union collectivists), in the sense that nobody should be able to prevent a person from pursuing employment (in that sector) it is something for which we should all strive. Indeed, the right to work is enshrined in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights

However, Mr. Crow and like-minded people are rarely talking about freedom when they are talking about rights. Rather, they are talking about entitlements. The “Right to work" is, in their view, the right to have the job of their choice, presumably in perpetuity.

This type of “right" differs fundamentally from a freedom. Freedom is individual; it requires only that others do not prevent the worker from working. Entitlements are inherently communal; if one person is entitled, another must be obliged. Mr. Crow is suggesting that some person or persons should be obliged to offer people jobs - in the case of the redundant Vestas workers, in industries that claim environmental benefits.

A very easy case can be made for leaving people alone to find their own employment without hindrance. In passing, it is worth noting that the greatest hindrances to employees finding (better) jobs are labour unions themselves – which operate on the basis of restrictive practices, without which they would have no power – and the laws for which they agitate. It is far harder to justify compelling a person to offer another a job. As compulsion is only necessary when a person does not want to do something, and as the only reason that a person would decline to offer another a job is that the would-be employer believes that they will lose out because of it, compelling them to offer a job reduces their welfare.

The likes of Mr. Crow are not, therefore, upholding a universal right. Instead, they are forcing one group of people, with whom they do not sympathise, to provide for another group, with whom they do. This could be viewed as transferring wealth from one group to another; it could be viewed as making one group the slaves of another (though the latter risks sounding like hyperbole and so should be used with caution).

It makes no difference, in this respect, whether it is the owners of Vestas specifically, or taxpayers more generally, who are subjected to this obligation. It remains an unjustifiable attack on their freedom, saddling them with an intolerable moral and financial burden that – in the long run and across the whole of society – will also impoverish all of us.