More on Unions and the Church

by Michael Sean Winters

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I received more than a few thoughtful emails, and some nasty attacks, for my post Tuesday about unions and Catholic universities. Some of those emails came from pastors who reported hearing questions about unions from people they consider good Catholics. I would like to address those concerns this morning.

One concern is that unions are not what they were one hundred years ago, that they have become more interested in preserving political power than in helping workers. It is true that unions are not what they were fifty years ago, let alone one hundred years ago. One of the major problems in recent years has been the steady decline in the number of private sector workers who are unionized. The Reagan years, especially his busting of the air traffic controllers union, combined with the mainstreaming of libertarian economic theories, took away the stigma against union busting tactics that once kept many employers from aggressively opposing union organizing. If labor has become more combative in the past fifty years, it is because they have had to and, if the measuring stick is one hundred years, well, strikes back then often entailed violence because management would send in the Pinkerton thugs to break up the unions.

In the Catholic view, unions and management should work cooperatively, and this is still the case in many Western European countries, where union leaders are at the table with management as large decisions are made. But, in the U.S., large employers like WalMart have actively obstructed union organizing, not only because the company would like to keep paying its workers such low wages that they qualify for food stamps, but because unions have been almost the only organized group standing in the way of the “race to the bottom” on wages that is an integral part of Walmart’s business model. It is a shame that the Church has lost its way and stopped defending labor as once it did. The complete absence of the bishops in Wisconsin from that state’s enactment of right-to-work laws was a mark of shame. Regrettably, too many bishops think the Church’s social teaching is expendable.

As the number of private sector workers in unions has declined, the public sector unions have become more influential within the labor movement to be sure. The Church has never drawn a distinction  between the rights of private and public sector workers regarding a right to organize, despite what some of our libertarian friends suggest. I would grant, too, that some public sector unions have not been as good at taking care of their members, of building a real commitment to solidarity among their members, than have other unions. In Wisconsin, after the right-to-work laws were passed, AFSCME lost almost half its members but the UAW lost about five percent of its members. I think that suggests that AFSCME’s decision, years ago, to focus more on politics and less on building a real union movement was mistaken.

Relatedly, some complain about the too cushy relationship between public sector unions and state legislators who set the pay rates and benefit levels for government employees. I would support a law that bars lobbying by unions the same day we pass a law that bars private employers, and the groups that represent them like the Chamber of Commerce, from lobbying legislators. Of course, both groups have a First Amendment right to petition their government. Others complain that some unions have taken positions at odds with the Church, which is true, but hardly surprising. Is there a political party that embodies Catholic social teaching in all its fullness? And, do we disengage with anyone and everyone who disagrees with us on a particular issue? Of course not.

One still hears concerns raised about corruption within unions, as if “On the Waterfront” was an accurate description of today’s labor movement. Richard Trumka and Mary Kay Henry, to cite only the two most prominent labor leaders in the country, do not have a corrupt bone in their bodies. And, when we encounter corruption in any organization, we fight the corruption, we don’t give up on the organization. I did not leave the Church because St. Pope John Paul II refused to confront Fr. Maciel's sexual molestations of minors, and I did not give up on democracy because Richard Nixon was a crook. 

Perhaps the most challenging concern is that the Church’s ministries, especially its colleges and universities, must try to keep costs low so that they can continue their ministry. This is undoubtedly an appropriate concern but it also highlights what is wrong with our whole understanding of the modern economy. The President of Loyola University in Chicago will not go to the electric company and say, “I can’t pay that much for electricity because I need to keep college affordable.” Labor, which is not a commodity, is treated as a commodity and, what is worse, is often treated as the one commodity that should take the economic hit when times are tough. This is what is wrong with our economy, akin to what Pope Francis indicted when he asked how it can be news that the stock market went up a few points but it is not news that people are dying of hunger. The Church and her ministries should practice what it preaches and show itself to be an exemplary employer, including extending the right to organize to its employees. Period.

In the past fifty years, Catholic charitable work has become increasingly reliant on large donors, and so many pastors and bishops must spend a significant amount of time with rich folk. God bless them for their generosity, but pastors should not imbibe these people’s analysis of society! Church leaders would think twice before taking a large contribution from someone who was publicly associated with Planned Parenthood and few would think twice about taking money from someone whose wealth was made on the backs of low wage workers. This must change. The other day, I came across the pastoral letter the bishops issued in 1942, mostly about the war effort. Our U.S. bishops wrote:

In this epochal revolution through which the world is passing, it is very necessary for us to realize that every man is our brother in Christ. All should be convinced that every man is endowed with the dignity of human personality, and that he is entitled by the laws of nature to the things necessary to sustain life in a way conformable to human dignity. In the postwar world, the profit element of industry and commerce must be made subservient to the common good of communities and nations if we are to have a lasting peace with justice and a sense of true brotherhood for all our neighbors. The inequalities of nations and of individuals can give to governments or to the leaders of industry or commerce a right to be unjust. They cannot, if they follow the fixed principles of morality, maintain or encourage conditions under which men cannot live according to standards befitting human personality.

I dare say that if someone had tried to get those words inserted into the bishops’ document “Faithful Citizenship,” they would have had a tough row to hoe.

Our Holy Father is less shy. He has repeatedly spoken about the dignity of work, the need to put people’s needs ahead of profit, challenged the current economic system and the evil individualism that undergirds it, and specifically extolled the rights of workers to organize. Indeed, he sees how the vibrancy of the labor movement is linked to a society’s overall capacity for justice. At Independence Hall this past September, after noting the ideals upon which the nation was founded, he said, “The history of this nation is also the tale of a constant effort, lasting to our own day, to embody those lofty principles in social and political life. We remember the great struggles which led to the abolition of slavery, the extension of voting rights, the growth of the labor movement, and the gradual effort to eliminate every kind of racism and prejudice directed at successive waves of new Americans.” What does he know that the rich parishioners posing slanted questions to their pastor do not know?

All of these concerns can be better addressed the more the Church engages the labor movement again. The good news is that such engagement is happening, as this Washington Post story indicates. For both the labor movement and for the Catholic Church, the demographic future is largely Latino. For both the labor movement and for the Church, libertarian economics is a principal antagonist to our shared vision of social justice. For both the labor movement and for the Catholic Church, solidarity is the way forward. Organized labor, like organized religion, is built upon the idea that we are in this together. There are answers to the questions my pastor friends have faced, and the more we work together, labor and the Church together, to enflesh those answers, to build solidarity, to work for the common good, the better our society and our politics and our culture will be for our efforts. 

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