The governments of the United States--both state and federal--have seen fit to impose several restrictions on the ability of private employers and employees to freely contract with respect to the terms of employment. These restraints are of several kinds: minimum wage laws, maximum work hours, the regulation of overtime pay, the ban on yellow dog contracts, and the ban on closed shops. I think, however, that such undue restrictions violate the fundamental liberties of both employer and employee, and are, moreover, unduly coercive.
Firstly, I think that these kinds of restraints violate the rights of employers. Employers do not hire workers to improve their livelihoods; they do so to get work done. They should be allowed to hire whomever they please, at whatever price, and under whatever terms of employment they please, provided the other party agrees. Employers should not be expected to sacrifice their profits for the "good of the community," the "good of the worker," or any such thing. Their interests are not outweighed by those of the worker. If the free market determines that some labor is worth only four dollars an hour, why should the government tell employers that they must pay five or six or seven?
On the whole, employers are of course are bound to respect the workers' rights to life, liberty, and property. But I think that they are not morally obligated to pay a minimum wage, or allow workers to join unions.
Secondly, these laws violate the rights of employees. Consider the example of someone who wants to work for more than eight hours a day, but is forbidden to do so by the law. Since he is harming no other man, why should he not be allowed to continue working? Similarly, let us imagine that someone (for whatever reason) wishes to work for less than the federal minimum wage. Why shouldn't he be allowed to do so, irrational as his desire may be?
Thirdly, and perhaps most importantly, I would argue that these restrictions violate the joint right of both employer and employee: the liberty of contract. I think that we must keep in mind that employment contracts are entered into voluntarily by both parties. They are not the product of coercion or compulsion by the government, or by the employer; the worker undertakes a commitment to work because he wants do do so, not because the government or a company forced him to do so. Since there is no duress or coercion involved, it should be up to the employer and the employee to decide upon the terms of employment; the government should be completely uninvolved. If two people voluntarily agree that one will pay the other four dollars an hour, or three dollars, or even two, then the government should not interfere. If they voluntarily agree that one will not join a union, or that one will be required to join a union then the government should not interfere. If they voluntarily agree that overtime will be compensated at the same rate as normal work, then the government should not interfere. In short, in the absence of any coercion whatsoever, the government has no business interfering with a freely-agreed-upon transaction.
Fourthly, I would propose that there is are such things as "workers' rights." Workers do not have any special rights, beyond the rest of the populace. I believe that an employee does not have a right to a particular wage, or a right to join a union, or a right to receive a particular level of overtime pay, that applies against the employer. Rather, their rights and liberties are the same as those of any other person, laborer or not.
I believe that all fundamental rights are negative rights: the right not to have one's life taken away, the right not to have one's liberty taken away, and the right not to have one's property taken away. They are not positive rights: for example, there is no fundamental right to receive property from another person. The same applies in the case of labor. There is, in my opinion, no such thing as a right to receive a "living wage."
But let us assume (for the sake of argument) that there are indeed such things as "workers' rights" that apply against private individuals. Rights such as these can, I think, be voluntarily renounced. I can renounce my right to bear arms, and never own a firearm. I can renounce my right to a certain piece of property, by giving it to someone else. I can renounce my right not to incriminate myself, by willingly giving testimony in court. Why, then, should these so-called "rights of employees" be any different? Why should a worker not be allowed to voluntarily give up his right to join a union, or to receive no less than a certain wage, or to work for no more than a certain number of hours a week?
Finally, I think that all such laws and restraints are unduly coercive. They are symptomatic of a nanny state: the government presumes that it knows best what the workers need. I would rather leave to each employee to negotiate whatever contract he desires, under whatever conditions he and his employer can agree to, than have the government impose such unreasonable standards, which are wholly destructive of personal and economic liberty.