Mirror of Justice

A blog dedicated to the development of Catholic legal theory.

A Member of the Law Professor Blogs Network

Thursday, February 24, 2011

Reid on Rerum Novarum and the right's demonization of labor unions

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.

http://mirrorofjustice.blogs.com/mirrorofjustice/2011/02/reid-on-rerum-novarum-and-the-rights-demonization-of-labor-unions.html

Vischer, Rob | Permalink

TrackBack URL for this entry:

http://www.typepad.com/services/trackback/6a00d834515a9a69e20147e2cc59fc970b

Listed below are links to weblogs that reference Reid on Rerum Novarum and the right's demonization of labor unions:

Comments

Feed You can follow this conversation by subscribing to the comment feed for this post.

Long time lurker, first time poster here. I'm very interested in the Wisconsin situation and CST. I'm a bit disappointed in this post, however, not least because I think the following passage is a bit much:

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.

Certainly to say that unions have been "targeted" by the right is going a bit far. No doubt, conservative free marketers doubt the efficiency of unions, but the decline of the union is at least in part the result of the decline of the manufacturing sector and their own over-reaching, let alone corruption, ties with organized crime, etc. After all, public opinion polls show a majority of Americans have dismal views of labor unions, and most saw the GM bailout (which was highly disapproved of by the public) as the result of "cadillac" labor contracts. Moreover, free trade was supported and passed by a Democratic President, indeed one with very high approvals from Democrats - Bill Clinton. Is he now part of the very "vast right-wing conspiracy" that sought to destroy him?

There is also compelling economic evidence to say that unions have outlived their purposefulness. Compare the economic situation in the northeast and midwest with that of the southeast where huge car factories have sprung up in Alabama, Tennessee, South Carolina and Mississippi. These are all right-to-work states, and I believe most of the factories are non-union. Their wages and salaries are higher, as is there job satisfaction.

My bottom line: is it "demonization" to argue that the historical context of Rerum Novarum has changed and that the "union" has outlived its necessity. After all, I don't see people lamenting the demise of the guild.

Posted by: Josh | Feb 24, 2011 5:51:55 PM

"After all, I don't see people lamenting the demise of the guild."

Actually, I have, but that, perhaps, is for another time.

It is tempting to say that unions have outlasted their usefulness. However, Rerum Novarum and all the other encyclicals on labor since do base the right to form unions on their "usefulness," but rather on the idea that the right flows from the dignity of the human person and dignity of human work.

That is what makes it hard to dismiss the Church's teaching on this subject as something peculiar to a particular time and place.

Posted by: Chris D | Feb 24, 2011 7:23:58 PM

Actually, I do think Church teaching ties to usefulness, in a manner of speaking, Chris. As Rob noted previously, from the Compendium of Social Doctrine has stated about them:

"Such organizations, while pursuing their specific purpose with regard to the common good, are a positive influence for social order and solidarity,"

What I single out here is "pursuing their specific purpose with regard to the common good." It seems to me that a union's purpose and common good need to be defined. I doubt, somehow, that the enjoyment of better benefits at the expense of the common good is Catholic purpose of unions. I think of the Knights of Columbus and similar fraternal organizations here, which depend on wealthier and healthier members of the organization and their good will to assist the remainder.

Posted by: Jonathan | Feb 24, 2011 9:46:15 PM

Actually, I do think Church teaching ties to usefulness, in a manner of speaking, Chris. As Rob noted previously, from the Compendium of Social Doctrine has stated about them:

"Such organizations, while pursuing their specific purpose with regard to the common good, are a positive influence for social order and solidarity,"

What I single out here is "pursuing their specific purpose with regard to the common good." It seems to me that a union's purpose and common good need to be defined. I doubt, somehow, that the enjoyment of better benefits at the expense of the common good is Catholic purpose of unions. I think of the Knights of Columbus and similar fraternal organizations here, which depend on wealthier and healthier members of the organization and their good will to assist the remainder.

Posted by: Jonathan | Feb 24, 2011 9:46:15 PM

Re: “Now, the American right is targeting the last bastion of the union movement -- public-sector unions.”

The “targeting” is being done by the public sector unions. Their immediate targets are elected representatives via the politics of bribery and threat. Their ultimate targets are the earnings of non-government taxpayers. The concession by the Wisconsin public employees union leaders on salary and benefits is simply a tactical retreat. They want to preserve at all costs their ability to re-assert their elitist goals when the general economy improves and the immediate budget crisis has passed. Hence their opposition to the requirement of yearly recertification of their authority and to mandatory dues deductions from employees' paychecks. Governor Walker and other governors have the moral obligation to save their states from going the way of California. (See http://www.city-journal.org/2010/20_2_california-unions.html .)

Posted by: Michael J. Kelly | Feb 25, 2011 6:55:29 AM

One would think that while "pursuing their specific purpose with regard to the common good" the fruits of their labor would be students who were proficient in Math and Reading. Unless the author in this article is mistaken in regards to Math and Reading proficiency, it appears the Teacher's Union has failed to adequately serve the common good. At the very least, the Teacher's Union is in need of a transformation.

http://news.yahoo.com/s/ac/20110223/us_ac/7923418_time_for_school_choice_in_wisconsin

As someone who has great respect for good teachers, I believe the education of our children should be a top priority and that good teachers should be compensated accordingly, for an important job that is well done.

Posted by: Nancy D. | Feb 25, 2011 9:34:09 AM

"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."

Unfortunately, it did not create such stability in the long run. In fact, it did the opposite. The northern rust belt is now paying dearly for its short-sighted approach to unions. Detriot, Toledo, Youngstown, el al have all been devastated by their slavish adherence to unionism. With a labor force unable to adjust to economic reality, those communities have been heavily burdened and even destroyed.

Just as we shouldn't have a pollyanna attitude toward corporations and big business, let's not have a pollyanna attitude toward unions either. Just as the right and its folks can be thugs, so can the unions.

Along these lines, let's not forget Karl Malden's famous monologue from the greatest "Union Bashing" CST movie ever made:

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=4XLbRI0kdLg

Posted by: CK | Feb 25, 2011 9:39:31 AM

While the American right has watched the decline of private sector unions with equanimity, it has certainly not "targeted" them; nor has it played a significant role in private sector union decline--certainly not as compared with macroeconomic forces.

Elements of the American right are certainly now targeting public sector unions; for the very good reason that on the way to achieving wages and benefits for their members that now far exceed those of the taxpayers who pay for them they are destroying the fiscal stability of the state-level public sector.

As catholic corporate law professor Stephen Bainbridge observes, there is no case for public sector unions comparable to the case for unions in the private sector. http://www.professorbainbridge.com/professorbainbridgecom/2011/02/the-case-against-public-sector-unionism.html

It will not do to cite CST concerns for the victims of industrial upheaval as justification for protecting public sector unions. They're a different animal from unions in the private sector.

Posted by: Tom | Feb 25, 2011 1:05:57 PM

It is true that, over the years and today, some on the "right" have "demonized" unions. First thought: politics ain't bean-bag. It's hardly the case that the unions have not flexed their muscle in support, not just of their own interests, but also of "the left" more generally. But, put that aside. Chuck Reid is a great scholar, and so I worry when I disagree with him about CST. But, I don't think there is any basis in the CST generally, or in RN specifically, for a suggestion that faithful Catholics, as such, should be choosing the teacher-unions' side in the Wisconsin (and similar fights). It's not (only) because the regulation of the employment context is *so* much more pervasive (and worker-friendly) than it was at the time RN was written. It's also because the relationship between public-employee and the political community is meaningfully different from the relationship between "capital" and "labor". Now, I *do* think that public employees -- like everyone else! -- have both a natural and a constitutional right to "associate". It doesn't follow, though, that faithful Catholics are precluded from thinking, or even discouraged from thinking, that many of the results -- and perhaps even the process -- of collective bargaining in the public-employee context undermine the common good.

Posted by: Rick Garnett | Feb 25, 2011 4:40:11 PM

"Novarum" means "revolution," as Reid claims, only in the sense that
"something new" always means "something radically new." Every day is new but only a year is a revolution.

The right has targeted unions, as Reid claims, only is the sense that opposing a state-mandated and -supported "association" means targeting free human association. A union is a form of association, but only associations free from suffocating state control are mediating associations.

Posted by: Pensans | Feb 26, 2011 10:50:02 PM

"Novarum" means "revolution," as Reid claims, only in the sense that
"something new" always means "something radically new." Every day is new but only a year is a revolution.

The right has targeted unions, as Reid claims, only is the sense that opposing a state-mandated and -supported "association" means targeting free human association. A union is a form of association, but only associations free from suffocating state control are mediating associations.

Posted by: Pensans | Feb 26, 2011 10:50:02 PM

Of course Catholics can in good faith disagree on details about public compensation/benefits for teachers and other public employees, but where Professor Reid is correct is in what we need to see as larger patterns.

The right has indeed made crippling unions, along with upper income tax cuts, a central part of its economic agenda, and it has been very successful in both over the last few decades (if only its abortion activism had been as successful). Private sector unions have shrunk to a fraction of their former size, new ones are almost impossible to start, and employers break what laws that still exist with impunity (firing workers trying to start a union is routine and unpunished in the service industry). This is closely linked to a larger context of stagnating wages, more regressive nationwide taxes, and a gap between rich and poor that is now one of the largest in US history. Union-busting is part of a set of larger and unjust economic trends that Catholics should care deeply about. While labor today is not the same as when RN was written, the vulnerability of workers (unemployment/underemployment, disappearing pensions, lack of health insurance, little family-friendly flex time, increasingly weak union protections, etc.) is a serious and growing problem, and so CST is still very relevant.

Unlike Catholic conservatives in other parts of the world, who are not committed to US-style economic libertarianism and who share the accomplishment of helping to build the modern welfare state in many countries that protect workers and uphold economic inequality, too many conservative Catholics in the US are wedded to economic ideologies foreign to CST and whose long term pattern leads to precisely the kinds of things RN condemned.

Posted by: Dave Cochran | Feb 27, 2011 12:54:46 PM

Dave Cochran nails it.

Posted by: WJ | Feb 27, 2011 2:18:18 PM

It is a violation of a person's dignity to force him to support a church, a political party or a union against his will. Even more so in the case of public worker unions, where the oppression is financed by his own tax dollars!

Michael J Kelly repeats the common mistake of assuming that the price of labor or goods is determined by its value. No, the price is determined by supply and demand. That's why water costs less than gold--not because it has less value. Thus the fact that we value education of children highly has no bearing on what we should pay teachers beyond the market-clearing price.

Posted by: Jimbino | Mar 1, 2011 6:59:14 AM

David Brooks (insert here snark about broken clocks) writes:

"[P]ublic sector unions and private sector unions are very different creatures. Private sector unions push against the interests of shareholders and management; public sector unions push against the interests of taxpayers. Private sector union members know that their employers could go out of business, so they have an incentive to mitigate their demands; public sector union members work for state monopolies and have no such interest. Private sector unions confront managers who have an incentive to push back against their demands. Public sector unions face managers who have an incentive to give into them for the sake of their own survival. Most important, public sector unions help choose those they negotiate with. Through gigantic campaign contributions and overall clout, they have enormous influence over who gets elected to bargain with them, especially in state and local races.

As a result of these imbalanced incentive structures, states with public sector unions tend to run into fiscal crises. They tend to have workplaces where personnel decisions are made on the basis of seniority, not merit. There is little relationship between excellence and reward, which leads to resentment among taxpayers who don’t have that luxury."

In my view, a refusal to distinguish at all -- for purposes of discussions about how Catholics should approach public-policy questions -- between public-sector unions and private-sector unions is a refusal to think about the matter seriously. To say this is not to say "there should be no public-sector unions"; it is, though, to say that the case for, and moral capital of, "Labor" is not simply transferable to public employees. The dynamic is different.

Posted by: Rick Garnett | Mar 1, 2011 8:28:25 AM

Well put, Prof. Garnett. Last week, on the "In All Things" blog at America, one of the posters suggested that in light of the clear teaching of the USCCB & the Milwaukee archbishop, that 2 GOP Catholic senators had to explain their "dissent" from Church teaching for supporting Gov. Walker's bill. I raised the point that it wasn't exactly clear there was any "teaching" from which to dissent, seeing as RN certainly cannot be applied to the situation of public unions for the very reasons David Brooks (among others) points out. Defeaning silence ensued. It seems our bishops, as well as lay people, have lost the fine art of casuistry (in its best sense).

Posted by: Josh | Mar 2, 2011 9:51:42 AM