In view of the recent attempt by organized labor to unseat Wisconsin governor Scott Walker, and the Supreme Court's ruling in the case of Knox v. Service Employees International Union that unions need explicit permission to spend certain monies on political causes, I found the Church's teaching on organized labor a fruitful reflection. Below are two paragraphs from the Compendium of the Social Doctrine of the Church, after which I'll hazard to offer a few comments:
306. The Church's social doctrine teaches that relations within the world of work must be marked by cooperation: hatred and attempts to eliminate the other are completely unacceptable. This is also the case because in every social system both “labour” and “capital” represent indispensable components of the process of production. In light of this understanding, the Church's social doctrine “does not hold that unions are no more than a reflection of the ‘class' structure of society and that they are a mouthpiece for a class struggle which inevitably governs social life”.[Laborem Exercens, 20] Properly speaking, unions are promoters of the struggle for social justice, for the rights of workers in their particular professions: “This struggle should be seen as a normal endeavour ‘for' the just good ... not a struggle ‘against' others”.[Ibid., 20] Being first of all instruments of solidarity and justice, unions may not misuse the tools of contention; because of what they are called to do, they must overcome the temptation of believing that all workers should be union-members, they must be capable of self-regulation and be able to evaluate the consequences that their decisions will have on the common good.[CCC, 670]
307. Beyond their function of defending and vindicating, unions have the duty of acting as representatives working for “the proper arrangement of economic life” and of educating the social consciences of workers so that they will feel that they have an active role, according to their proper capacities and aptitudes, in the whole task of economic and social development and in the attainment of the universal common good.[Gaudium et Spes, 68] Unions and other forms of labour associations are to work in cooperation with other social entities and are to take an interest in the management of public matters. Union organizations have the duty to exercise influence in the political arena, making it duly sensitive to labour problems and helping it to work so that workers' rights are respected. Unions do not, however, have the character of “political parties” struggling for power, and they should not be forced to submit to the decisions of political parties nor be too closely linked to them. “In such a situation they easily lose contact with their specific role, which is to secure the just rights of workers within the framework of the common good of the whole of society; instead they become an instrument used for other purposes”.[Laborem Exercens, 20]
Two things strike me as salient: First, the Church is extremely pro-union. That organization of workers is not only a right but also a means to promote justice and solidarity is quite clear. No meaningful discussion of unions can ignore this message. Second, however, it seems equally clear that the practice of American organized labor at present falls short of the Church's full vision.
One may argue whether unions or their opponents are responsible for the present bout of vitriol; in either case, labor relations are at present characterized by hatred rather than cooperation. Likewise, while it is reasonable for non-unionized workers who benefit from collective bargaining to share in its costs, the existence of closed shops which compel union membership suggest union leaders have not fully taken to heart the notion that not all workers need be unionized. The Supreme Court just ruled on the practice of using money collected from non-union workers for political purposes. SEIU argued that so long as workers were notified and given the chance to opt out, justice was served; the Court thought otherwise, insisting that non-union workers give their explicit permission before their non-voluntary contributions are used in this way. Even if one disagrees with the Court's ruling on the legality of the matter, it hardly seems like best practice, and suggests to me that SEIU is not properly "capable of self-regulation." The Church's teaching on the political role of unions is very finely balanced: organized labor has a duty to be active in the political sphere, but should not strive for political power nor become too closely linked with political parties, which are apt to use them for political ends. The opposition - even hatred - of many in the Republican party toward organized labor makes it unsurprising that unions are associated nigh exclusively with the Democrats. Still, one must wonder whether the cause of unions (or any other cause: the pro-life movement, environmental campaigns, etc...) is best served by exclusive association with a single party. I fear that when a party can count on the support of a given group, it tends to abandon the cause and milk the group for cash and votes.
Finally, there is the question of public sector unions, which sparked the Wisconsin recall election. The Church teaches that unions "must... be able to evaluate the consequences that their decisions will have on the common good." I would argue that this supports an idea I have considered for some time: public sector unions are a substantially different matter from those in the private sector. In the private sector, workers have an interest in ensuring their personal wages and well-being, but also the well-being of their corporation; if it loses profitability and goes bankrupt, they are likely to lose their jobs. This reality encourages prudence and discourages the temptation on the part of workers to make unreasonable demands. In the public sector, if workers demand too much and state agencies go bankrupt, such agencies either close - costing workers their jobs, but also the public their services - or turn to the taxpayers for additional money. Thus, public sector workers have far less reason to worry about demanding too much or otherwise "misus[ing] the tools of contention."