The Great Legacy of Sylvester Petro
Mark Pulliam of Misrule of Law has written a touching tribute to Sylvester Petro, one of the great labor law scholars of the 20th century.
Petro was also an a dear friend and early supporter of the Mises Institute, and we are proud to offer his book The Labor Policy of the Free Society for free in our online library. In fact, as Pulliam notes, Petro's dedication to the ideas of Austrian economics and a proper understanding of contracts and property came at a personal cost:
Why is Petro relatively unknown despite his prolific writing? Part of the explanation lies in academic politics; Petro was an unabashed libertarian, a proponent of Austrian School economics, and an unrelenting critic of the National Labor Relations Act (particularly as interpreted and enforced by the National Labor Relations Board). Petro believed that the ideal regulation of labor relations consisted of enforcing consensual contractual arrangements and prohibiting coercion and the use of force, in accordance with the common law. The NLRA squarely rejects this paradigm, substituting instead a regime of cartel-style “exclusive representation,” mandatory “collective bargaining,” significant impairment of employers’ contract and property rights, and legal privileges for certain union conduct.
Perhaps no area of law is so full of myths as labor law, and nobody was more committed to debunking those myths than Petro was. During Petro’s teaching career (1950-1978), such views–although popular in the business community–were decidedly out of the mainstream in legal academia. While Richard Epstein found greater acceptance for the libertarian point of view in the 1980s, along with the advent of the “law and economics” movement that validated application of free market principles to legal analysis, during the 1950s and 1960s Petro was unfashionably ahead of his time. Petro, out-of-style during the heyday of his career, was largely forgotten by an increasingly politicized professoriate after he retired. Later generations of labor law professors, at home with the premises of the NLRA, found it easier to ignore Petro than to respond to his withering critique. The current generation of progressive intellectuals ruling the academy scorns Petro as an “ideologically driven” scholar holding “radically anti-union views.”
Though Sylvestor Petro passed away in 2007, the influence of his work continues to this day. For example, his arguments against public sector collective bargaining were cited in the pending Janus v. AFSCME, a case that could have significant ramifications for government unions.