A Worker's Right To Coerce?

Critics of the Progressive Student Labor Movement (PSLM) have long held that the group’s tactics are coercive and therefore unethical. The Harvard community’s labor activists have remained silent on the issue, claiming they were fighting for “justice” but offering few tangible arguments in defense of their principles. At long last, however, some of the PSLM’s defenders have taken up the issue of “coercion.” They contend that the distinction between a coercive and a non-coercive action is ambiguous and ultimately meaningless. While it is encouraging to see that they haven’t forgotten the issue altogether, their arguments in defense of “coercion” as the most effective tool in the worker’s arsenal reveal that their understanding of the question is woefully inadequate.

When critics of the PSLM denounce their tactics as “coercive,” it is not because those tactics are intended to “induce” rather than “persuade” Harvard to institute a living wage. Nor do we believe that coercion is simply a means of making a desired outcome preferable to other alternatives. These definitions clearly include many forms of bargaining. Suppose I want my neighbor’s wallet. If I hold a gun to his head and demand that he hand it over, I am making my desired outcome (I get his wallet, he lives) preferable to the alternative (I kill him). If I instead offer him a million dollars for his wallet, I am making my desired outcome (I get his wallet, he gets a million dollars) preferable to the alternative (neither of us gets anything). One of these situations is clearly wrong, the other is clearly acceptable, but both count as “coercion” under the inducement definition of the term. Some other definition must be at the root of our assessment.

So, what does coercion mean to the critics of the PSLM? As we see it, coercion is the initiation of force as a means of obtaining a desired end, where force is the use or appropriation of an individual’s property without his consent. Initiation is the key term. If you are attacked, or if your life is in danger, you have the right to defend yourself, because you have a property right in yourself. The word coercion includes all forms of aggression, including rape, murder and military aggression, as well as many things (for example, pickpocketing or theft) that do not involve an overtly violent act. That is, “coercive” is not the opposite of “nonviolent.” It is the opposite of “consensual” or “cooperative.”

What we argue, when we criticize the PSLM, is that their tactics fall under this definition of coercion. The relationship between a worker and an employer is a contract to which both parties agree in the expectation of benefit. The employer offers wages; the worker offers labor. If workers feel their wages are inadequate, they have the right to suspend or cancel the contract and withhold labor. If employers feel workers’ labor is inadequate, they have the right to terminate employment. Employers must compete for the services that workers offer, and workers must strive to make their services more valuable. What the PSLM fails to understand is that not every action in pursuit of higher wages is just or ethical. While every worker has the right to withhold his labor, it is not his right to commandeer a public street and deprive innocent motorists of the use of their automobiles. Similarly, while every student has the right to organize a voluntary boycott, it is quite another thing to seize someone else’s building and refuse to leave.

Some of PSLM’s supporters claim a labor contract is inherently coercive. They argue that a worker’s need to survive “coerces” them into accepting the terms of an unfair agreement. But while it is true that individuals must work in order to live, and that the structure of society limits an individual’s access to employment, it does not follow that employers are somehow coercing individuals into working. These limitations are part of the natural world we inhabit, and employers offer a viable and strictly voluntary means of overcoming them. Without Harvard, there would be no janitorial positions or potential wages to begin with. Harvard is the producer, the generator of wealth. If a worker wishes to obtain some of that wealth, he must offer something in return—i.e., his labor—and he has a right to bargain for equitable wages. He never has the right, however, to seize or damage Harvard’s property, just as he never has the right to seize or damage his neighbor’s property.

While PSLM believes that it is fighting for a world in which everyone is prosperous, history has shown that the most prosperous nations are those in which property rights are protected universally. Today, most of the world’s population remains in desperate poverty specifically because there are very few places where private property is protected against arbitrary confiscations. Labor advocates take our own economic and social system for granted, assuming that the prodigious machinery of American industry will continue producing through every form of regulation and domination. They are wrong. What the workers of the world need is less coercion, not more.

Steven R. Piraino ’02, Julio R. Machado ’03 and Patrick S. Boehm ’03 are officers of the Harvard Libertarian Society.