Saturday, June 23, 2012

The Church's Teaching on Unions

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."


Paul said...
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Paul said...

Excellent points--particularly about the difference between public and private sector unions. I'm of the opinion that public sector unions should be banned. Their effect is to extort tax payers while creating gross inefficiencies in public serving organizations.

In the private sector, things are a bit more complicated. I like the vision outlined in the Compendium, but it sounds a bit to me like "slaves, obey your masters". Is the Church saying that unions are necessary or rather, granting that they exist, calling them to promote the common good?

Workers should be able to negotiate fair terms with their employers. But collective bargaining organizations can actually prevent that from happening. No longer are individuals treated as individuals, compensated according to their work, but simply as units. Underperfomring? No worries, management can't fire you. Doing a fantastic job? That's nice, but your wages will remain fixed at the same rate as everyone else's. We often hear the phrase "equal pay for equal work"; I don't see how that's possible with unions.

Aaron Linderman said...

I read the Church's teaching on the goodness of unions as being two-fold. At a fundamental level, unions may encourage solidarity; this is good in itself. On more of a prudential level, given man's fallen nature, there will be injustice and abuse in the labor market; unions can serve as a corrective to this evil.

I think we can judge unions on these two criteria. If they're fostering solidarity and encouraging fairness, great! If they're crushing authentic solidarity and failing to address (or even worse, perpetuating) injustice, we must then ask whether particular unions can be reformed to accomplish these goals, or whether they are too far gone and should be opposed.

Barry said...

But collective bargaining organizations can actually prevent that from happening. No longer are individuals treated as individuals, compensated according to their work, but simply as units.

That's especially true in certain professions, especially the "skilled trades." (I'm thinking of nurses and teachers, but doubtless others, like carpenters, apply too.)

Perhaps there could be some compromise: organized labor provides a "floor," both in productivity and compensation. Falling below that may lead to termination (not to mention giving the other professionals a "bad name.") But exceeding that minimum standard could be compensated in any way the parties see fit. Don't actors and actresses have something like this? There's a minimum, "scale" appearance fee, but Tom Hanks, Brad Pitt, and Julia Roberts still make their millions.

Barry said...

Sometimes I worry labor unions are manifestations of the "lemon problem" writ large. Whenever an entity, government or otherwise, sets a single price for a good, the quality, almost definitionally suffers.

The classic example, as the name implies, is used cars. If someone were to declare that a broad category of automobiles (say, "2000s Toyotas) all sold for a single price (say $5,0000), there'd be bedlam. Everyone with a beater would bring it to market, and hardly anyone else would.

While that example is obviously an exaggeration, the broader point holds. People are not "resources or "commodities." Treating them as such is far more insidious than "undercompensation."