Subsidiarity Calls for Labor Unions

Living wages are a requirement of justice. That is the teaching of Pope Leo XIII’s Rerum Novarum [1], which has been called the Magna Charta of Catholic Social Teaching. [2] In light of the foundational status of the living wage requirement in the social doctrine of the Church, objections to it would be surprising coming from Catholic quarters if they were not so ubiquitous. At times it even seems to challenge the teaching on birth control as the pre-eminent locus of Catholic intra-mural disputation. 

Not all of the objections come from covert disciples of Ayn Rand. There are those who, rightly, identify Catholic Social Teaching with some form of worker ownership of productive enterprises, but, wrongly, subsume all of Catholic doctrine on economic questions to that one remedy, forgetting that Pope Pius XI, the one who first suggested worker ownership in a papal encyclical, said specifically that a wage contract was not in itself unjust. It bears mentioning that, as laudable as worker ownership arrangements are when they are voluntary, or even encouraged with such things as tax incentives, government compulsion in that direction would almost certainly run afoul of constitutional protections rightly valued by American citizens. In any event, each son and daughter of the Church must commit to drinking the whole draught of Catholic doctrine if unintended distortions, both personal and public, are to be avoided. 

There is a particular objection, however, that must be answered in some manner, that pertains to determining exactly what is a living wage. Simply imposing a roughly calculated figure across the country seems as if it would be inexact enough to leave workers in some regions with a sub living wage, just as the minimum wage does now in every place. But the very raising of the question assumes that the figure must be arrived at by some governmental authority, and ignores an essential feature of Catholic Social Teaching: Subsidiarity.

The doctrine of Subsidiarity teaches that government should not do what can be accomplished privately. In his encyclical Quadragesimo Anno Pope Pius XI put it this way:

“As history abundantly proves, it is true that on account of changed conditions many things which were done by small associations in former times cannot be done now save by large associations. Still, that most weighty principle, which cannot be set aside or changed, remains fixed and unshaken in social philosophy: Just as it is gravely wrong to take from individuals what they can accomplish by their own initiative and industry and give it to the community, so also it is an injustice and at the same time a grave evil and disturbance of right order to assign to a greater and higher association what lesser and subordinate organizations can do. For every social activity ought of its very nature to furnish help to the members of the body social, and never destroy and absorb them.”

There is no mystery as to what sort of private entities can be useful for purposes of determining proper wages: labor unions. Of course, labor unions are a diminishing feature of our nation’s economic landscape. But they are the specific remedy suggested by Rerum Novarum, and it is statistically clear that, in the United States, union members fare better in terms of their wages than do non-union workers. [3] A change in governmental policy to encourage their resurgence would enjoy the advantage of treading already well cleared pathways, and would place the determination of wages where they ought to be: in negotiations between two parties of equal strength. 

Subsidiarity, of course, is a feature of Catholic Social Teaching that certain partisans would like to emphasize to the exclusion of all others. The irony that it is those very partisans who would disapprove of the resurgence of labor unions should be noted. But we are thus reminded once again that Catholic Social Teaching finds a political home in neither of the major American political encampments.

Jack Quirk