Why No Union

February 27, 2017

“Among the basic rights of the human person is to be numbered the right of freely founding unions for working people. These should be able truly to represent them and to contribute to the organizing of economic life in the right way. Included is the right of freely taking part in the activity of these unions without risk of reprisal. Through this orderly participation joined to progressive economic and social formation, all will grow day by day in the awareness of their own function and responsibility, and thus they will be brought to feel that they are comrades in the whole task of economic development and in the attainment of the universal common good according to their capacities and aptitudes.” [1]

Thus says Guadium et spes (section 68), one of the four constitutions that resulted from the Second Vatican Council. But lately, workers in the United States have been rejecting the opportunity to avail themselves of this basic right. On February 15th, an attempt to organize the workers at Boeing’s South Carolina facilities failed overwhelmingly. [2] And this is not the first such failure in recent times. As the New York Times reports,

“That setback capped a stretch of high-profile losses for unions across the South. Workers at a Volkswagen plant in Chattanooga, Tenn., narrowly voted down a union in 2014. In 2011, production and maintenance workers at R. J. Reynolds Tobacco in North Carolina narrowly rejected a union, the third defeat in an organizing effort that had gone on for more than six and a half years.”

What is behind this failure? On the face of it, the refusal of workers to organize runs directly against their own economic self-interests. As a study published by the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics says,

“Recent data from the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) show that, on average, union workers receive larger wage increases than those of nonunion workers and generally earn higher wages and have greater access to most of the common employer-sponsored benefits as well. These trends appear to persist despite declining union membership.” [3]

It is simply a fact that among “full-time wage and salary workers, union members had median usual weekly earnings of $1,004 in 2016, while those who were not union members had median weekly earnings of $802.” [4] So do we ascribe worker rejection of unionization to a kind of self-loathing? Or, perhaps, there is something in Catholic social teaching that provides a clue.

In Laborem exercens, Saint Pope John Paul II restated Catholic social teaching on the importance of labor unions, but added this caution:

“In this sense, union activity undoubtedly enters the field of politics, understood as prudent concern for the common good. However, the role of unions is not to ‘play politics’ in the sense that the expression is commonly understood today. Unions do not have the character of political parties struggling for power; they should not be subjected to the decision of political parties or have too close links with them. In fact, 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.[5]

The connection between labor unions and the Democratic Party in the United States is well-known. “Ever since industrial unions worked to reelect President Franklin Roosevelt in 1936, organized labor and the Democratic Party have worked together in U.S. politics.” [6] But, as Daniel Schlozman of Johns Hopkins University points out it in Scholar’s Strategy Network, it didn’t take long after the FDR era for this Democratic-labor alliance to begin to wither.

“After a wave of strikes, a coalition of Republicans and southern Democrats, worried about biracial labor organizing that would threaten Jim Crow, passed the 1947 Taft-Hartley Act over President Harry Truman’s veto. This law created barriers to new union organizing, expanded management rights, and allowed states to enact ‘right-to-work’ provisions to ban the union shop. Many states in the Sun Belt did exactly that.”

The Democrats have never been able to regain the lost ground.

“Ever since 1947, Republicans and Democrats have continued to clash over legal rights for unions, yet Democrats have not been able either to repeal Taft-Hartley or to deliver major new supports. In 1965, 1978, and 2009, pro-union bills failed due to the Senate filibuster.”

Ineffective efforts on the part of the Democrats have been coupled with a lack of effort on the part of organized labor.

“After the 1940s, unions committed scant resources to workplace organizing – and they faced long odds when they tried to change course in the 1990s. Only miniscule slivers of U.S. workers have recently formed unions, and changing this reality would cost thousands of dollars per union member each year.”

Then, in the 1970s, the American labor movement began to experience significant reversals, which led to increasing alienation between organized labor and the Democratic Party. Julian Zelizer, in an opinion piece on the CNN site puts it this way:

“The situation for organized labor took a terrible turn starting in the 1970s. Many of the industries that were most heavily unionized in Northern states weakened. Owners moved factories and their jobs to Southern states, which had tough right-to-work laws that made it illegal to force workers in an organized workplace to join the union and pay dues, or transported business overseas.

“Many of the most vibrant parts of the economy, such as the service and high-tech sector, did not offer unionized jobs. Federal policies were no longer hospitable to unions. Conservatives turned to legislation like the Taft-Hartley Act (1947) to squeeze union power. Some workers from unions turned to the Republican Party as part of the backlash to liberalism that unfolded after the 1960s.

“As labor became less important, a large number of Democrats became cool to unions. President Carter angered union leaders in the late 1970s when he pushed for fiscal austerity and didn't back legislation that would have protected boycotts. President Clinton clashed with unions over issues, including the NAFTA free trade treaty, while President Obama disappointed many when he didn't push for the Employee Free Choice Act in 2009 and 2010.” [7]

Add to these President Obama’s push for the Trans-Pacific Partnership Agreement (TPP) [8], and his anemic response to Governor Scott Walker’s efforts to curtail the collective bargaining rights of public employees in Wisconsin. [9]

But labor unions, considered as institutions, remain solidly Democratic. Given the anti-union policies of the Republican Party in its current configuration they have little choice. But this only translates to support for the Democratic Party on the part of working people generally, and on the part of union members in particular, to the extent that working people see labor unions as embodying their interests. And in the recent presidential election organized labor threw its support behind an erstwhile supporter of the TPP [10] [11], while Donald Trump threatened Ford with a 35% tariff if it built a new manufacturing facility in Mexico. [12]

Under such circumstances, working people cannot be charged with irrationality if they conclude that organized labor is little more than a handmaid for a political party that espouses policies inimical to their interests. Even if union employees generally do better than those without union representation, what is the worth of that if those high-paying union jobs are designated for export under the “free-trade” ideology espoused by organized labor’s political masters? And why would anyone voluntarily pay dues for that?   

Thus we see the reason behind Saint Pope John Paul II’s caution against labor unions becoming too closely affiliated with a political party. The party swallows the unions with the result that the unions begin to fail in their essential purpose, “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.” The end result is that organized labor destroys itself.

When labor unions identify with one of the political parties in a two-party system such as prevails in the United States, they become a target of the opposing party while being taken for granted by the party they support. A much more sensible policy would be for unions to give their support, not by party, but by candidate. And this support should not be done on a “lesser-of-two-evils” basis, because that only incentivizes “lesser-of-two-evils” behavior. Support from labor unions should be given only to those candidates who completely support what organized labor supports. In the meantime, unions should at all times remember their essential purpose: secure the just rights of workers and organize them toward those ends. Perhaps then we will see a reversal of organized labor’s declining fortunes in the United States.

Jack Quirk