When monopolists clash…

…ugly things happen — at least for organized labor, which enjoys monopoly representation under the Wagner Act. Unlike for other services, individuals usually face only one choice when joining a union — and in some states they don’t have the choice to not pay at least agency fees, in lieu of union dues, for representation they may not even want.

So what happens when two unions — each bidding to extend their monopoly bargaining agency– go after the same group of potential members? In the case of a confrontation between the California Nurses Association (CNA) and the Service Employees International Union (SEIU), harassment and intimidation.

At the recent convention of the pro-union group Labor Notes, at least 200 SEIU members stormed the convention banquet apparently to disrupt a speech by the CNA executive director (who had cancelled earlier in the day, anyhow). In addition, CNA claims that SEIU organizers have harassed nurses at home. CNA took out a temporary restraining order against SEIU, which was vacated yesterday by a California court.

CNA and other union supporters have rightly expressed outrage at SEIU’s bullying tactics. Yet this shouldn’t be surprising. Going beyond these specific incidents, it’s important to note the role of incentives.

When the law skews the rules of the game into an all-or-nothing proposition, no compromise or partial victories are possible for anybody: Either everybody joins a union (or at least pays agency fees) or no one does; and if everybody joins one union, no one can join a different one.

Such a scenario is not market competition, it’s economic warfare played out as a zero-sum game. Sadly, that is something which the state of current labor law makes almost inevitable.