Catholic social teaching has long recognized the importance of workers having the freedom to organize together in order to push for improved working conditions and wages. The Catechism briefly summarizes:
2430 Economic life brings into play different interests, often opposed to one another. This explains why the conflicts that characterize it arise. Efforts should be made to reduce these conflicts by negotiation that respects the rights and duties of each social partner: those responsible for business enterprises, representatives of wage- earners (for example, trade unions), and public authorities when appropriate…
2435 Recourse to a strike is morally legitimate when it cannot be avoided, or at least when it is necessary to obtain a proportionate benefit. It becomes morally unacceptable when accompanied by violence, or when objectives are included that are not directly linked to working conditions or are contrary to the common good.
Many more citations could be offered from encyclicals over the past century and more that support the existence of labor unions. IMHO, the language in which these discussions are couched tend to reflect the prevailing political/economic/philosophical opinions; e.g., the popularization of socialist thought in the early and mid twentieth century led many to conceive of the employer-employee relationship as one of extreme inbalance which needed regulation by the state to correct. The language of Church documents at this time (if not later?) continue this paradigm of a power struggle; note the use of “conflicts” above.
That “conflicts” exist in markets is obvious in one sense, but at the same time it seems odd to describe them as such. There is a conflict because the preferences of the trading partners are completely at odds: buyers want a low price and sellers a high price. The oddity is that, in the face of such “conflict,” buyer and seller have to put those preferences aside and negotiate with the other human being in the exchange, respecting their dignity as persons. If one side does not do so, the trade doesn’t happen.
Again, the adopted script is that employers have huge amounts of power which an individual employee does not; if she were left to her own devices, the employee would be offered below-subsistence wages in a non-air-conditioned work environment where fingers were lost in industrial equipment and the coffee in the break room is only luke warm. The employer, caring only enough about the employee to squeeze as much labor out of her, has scads of potential employees in the wings and so has no incentive to make life tolerable for its workers. In steps the union, to rally the employees into a unified voice.
You may be convinced of this story, of the heartlessness of capitalism and business (and businesses, which is not the same concept), of the odd conclusion that sellers of labor need broad organizational protection and moral support but sellers of other things do not, and of the vital necessity of unions to correct employer atrocities. You will, though, have to contend with the following data:
Private sector workers are leaving unions at a pretty steady clip over a pretty long stretch of time which represents a pretty diverse national political scene. From 1973-2012, the electorate voted in strong and weak conservatives and strong and weak liberals. There were strong and weak recessions and strong and weak periods of growth. Yet the decline in unionization (save for the first six years or so) is unpredictably predictable. Note also that the decline in private sector unionism precedes Reagan’s firing of the striking air-traffic controllers. For a paradigm that views working conditions and wages as deplorable absent union representation, the flight away from unions needs an explanation.
One might make the case that the drop demonstrates that unions have succeeded; conditions and wages are better and so workers, the beneficiaries of past union efforts, no longer need them. Unions achieved their goals and thus successfully made themselves irrelevant. Similar arguments are made over the reduction in pollution vis-a-vis the EPA, or discrimination in hiring and the EEOC. I’m not convinced that unions, the EPA, or the EEOC per se caused these changes or whether societal and economic forces led to improvements in these areas that would have occurred anyway without these groups. People have disliked lost fingers, dirty air, and being discriminated against before these entities existed.
People also may be fleeing unions because of stories like this:
A judge ordered one of Chicago’s most politically powerful labor unions to suspend picketing against 16 funeral homes last week after receiving reports that striking Teamsters had, among other things, disturbed a child’s funeral. SCI Illinois Services, Inc., one of the nation’s largest funeral home chains, asked a district court to intervene after striking funeral directors and drivers with Teamsters Local 727 allegedly harassed grieving families…
The company testified in its filing that union members blocked grieving family members from leaving its parking lot, used bullhorns to shout obscenities at workers and mourners, and unleashed a German Shepard on a dead woman’s daughter and husband. The funeral home was eventually forced to call the police when picketers allegedly disrupted a child’s funeral with laughter. The officer asked the Teamsters to leave, but protesters returned when he drove away.
To repeat the CCC, a strike “becomes morally unacceptable when accompanied by violence, or when objectives are included that are not directly linked to working conditions or are contrary to the common good.” Hard to argue the situation at Chicago funeral homes didn’t cross this line.
Is it past time that Catholics interested in its social teaching disregard the dehumanizing language that paints employees and unions as saints and employers as demons? Certainly there are countries and societies where labor markets are not as free as ours, and where coercion and terrible working conditions are supported by local politicians and bureaucrats. In such cases, the Church’s support of employee organizations is needed, though equally necessary (and often lacking) are condemnations of the local governments. But the belief that freely-exchanging parties, even exchanging over labor services, is by definition one of oppression that needs state remedy and union intervention, is a remnant of outdated political philosophy. For Catholics to be taken seriously in economic and political debates, it is necessary that such antiquated views be revised. As I’ve said before, the Church is to be commended for having scholars at the leading edge of biotechnology (e.g., stem-cell research); having scholars whose view of modern labor relations is equivalent to that of a sweaty, pittance-paid worker in a noisy, dangerous factory with a fatcat owner does us no favors.