Thursday, February 24, 2011
My colleague Charles Reid offers these thoughts on the situation in Wisconsin:
Atomization is one of the great crises now threatening American society. Both the contemporary left and the contemporary right, in their own ways, have gone about promoting the atomization of American life. The left seeks to make all associations voluntary and dissolvable, even institutions like the family. The right wishes to strip the individual of all intermediating groups that shield the person from larger impersonal forces. The individual is left to stand, naked and alone, defenseless before the power of capital and government.
Catholic social thought challenges this atomization. I've written extensively on the family and really don't need to address that further in the context of this post. My concern rather is with the response of Catholic social thought to the atomization fostered and promoted by the contemporary right. And here, Catholic thought builds on a rich medieval heritage of guilds and trade associations to promote the value of organized labor. We might consider the papal encyclical Rerum Novarum, whose Latin title literally means "Concerning Revolution," but which is commonly rendered in English as "On the Rights of Labor."
Pope Leo XIII, the author of the encyclical, wrote in the 1890s, during a time of vast industrial upheaval that featured growing conflict between the forces of capital, on the one hand, and the demand, by workers' groups, to socialize the means of production. Leo saw both extremes as dangerous and sought to establish a middle ground where labor and capital might meet in conditions of relative equality.
His age, Leo wrote, was characterized by a great division between rich and poor: On the one hand, there were "the enormous fortunes of some few individuals;" on the other, "the utter poverty of the masses." (para. 1). The old economic order has been turned upside down. "The ancient working men's guilds were abolished in the last century, and no other protective organization took their place." (para. 3). Workers have thus been "surrendered, isolated and helpless" to their employers. (Id). "Public institutions and laws" intended as safeguards have been dismantled. (Id).
Leo is at great pains to stress that socialism is not the answer: in its demand that everything must be public, in its denial of the private, in its attack on property and ownership, socialism wars against the human personality itself. Private property and investment of capital, on the other hand, promotes cultivation, economic development, and the betterment of human life. Socialism, Leo prophesied, by denying elemental truths about the person, must lead to its own destruction. (paras. 4-12).
Mediating institutions, however, needed to be constructed to protect individuals from being swamped and overwhelmed in a world controlled by vast impersonal institutions and aggregations of wealth. Workers, in Leo's words, need insulation from "the cruelty of men of greed." (para. 42). Leo appreciated that what was called for was a system of checks and balances to control the sinful impulses of all concerned. Power to fix and determine the conditions of employment, to define wages and benefits, Leo realized, must not be allowed to vest exclusively in either employers or employees.
Leo looked to the deep wellsprings of Christian anthropology for an answer to this dilemma. The human person is a social being, naturally fitted to participate and draw succor and strength from civil groups. Christianity, Leo reminded his readers, had long made use of such groups. There have always been "confraternities, societies, religious orders" that have shaped life within the Church. This experience, Leo argued, must drawn upon in order to build unions that genuinely represent the needs of workers. These organizations must not be socialist in character (para. 54); rather they must be informed by "good will" and observe "due prudence." (para. 58). Properly defined and limited, these organizations should negotiate and mediate "[t]he rights and duties of the employers, as compared with the rights and duties of the employed." (Id).
It would be tedious and is not really necessary to trace the development of this line of thought in Catholic social doctrine. Rather than undertaking such an exercise I should like instead to state that my childhood, my early development as a person, was shaped decisively by the practical implementation of this teaching.
In the Milwaukee of my youth, in the Catholic working-class neighborhood where I grew up, unions were a way of life. They promoted economic stability and working-class prosperity. Crime was rare. Families were supportive.
The American right has spent forty years demonizing and dismantling private-sector labor unions. They have been stamped out in the name of free trade, efficiency, and greater profits to the holders of capital. And what has taken their place? A beggared working class. Soaring social pathologies. Pay-day lenders, exploding rates of incarceration, record numbers of Americans on food stamps.
Now, the American right is targeting the last bastion of the union movement -- public-sector unions. In a perfect world, public-sector unions would be a secondary phenonemon, deriving benefits and strengths from private-sector unions. And, indeed, thirty and forty years ago, that was the case. Many of the public-sector contracts now under threat were modeled on the private-sector contracts of that era.
The Wisconsin teachers' union, as I understand it, has largely conceded the day on matters of salary and benefits. The issue now is whether the teachers' association, and other similar public-sector unions, continue to enjoy the right to fulfill their elementary purpose -- to bargain collectively on the terms of employment. This is where the line must be drawn.