History has confirmed the wisdom of Catholics who believed that securing democracy in the workplace would help protect and expand it in politics. From the Progressive Era through the New Deal to the formation of public-sector unions in the 1960s, their defense of collective bargaining led to a more just, if still imperfect, society. As collective bargaining expanded, so did political democracy: voting rights were won by women and African Americans, poll taxes were eliminated, and the voting age was lowered to cover anyone old enough to serve in the military; the power of money in politics was curbed; and economic inequality sank to a level not seen before or since. Catholic teaching played a supportive role in all these developments.
Yet that era is now gone. As collective bargaining has been rolled back, efforts to suppress voting have returned, inequality has grown, and unregulated big money again dominates politics. In many ways, we now confront a world not so different from that of the late nineteenth century, which gave birth both to Catholic social teaching on labor and to U.S. workers’ long, bitter struggle to win collective-bargaining rights.
Like our forebears in the era of Rerum novarum, we now face the challenge of articulating principles and devising practical mechanisms that can build a more humane and democratic world. Our urgent task is to revitalize what they bequeathed us—both our moral tradition and the tool of collective bargaining that this tradition did so much to legitimize. It is difficult to imagine how we can tame the most destructive features of today’s capitalism and preserve a robust democracy without reviving workers’ ability to bargain collectively.
Even before Janus, collective bargaining was becoming an increasingly ineffectual tool in the public and private sector alike. The form of collective bargaining that developed in the private sector in the mid-twentieth century began to break down in a world where power became concentrated in the hands of fewer economic actors and the financialization of the economy altered the goals and behavior of employers—their every decision now subject to potential punishment by fickle financial markets or the manipulations of private equity. It was not built for a world where subcontracting, franchising, and extended international supply chains insulate those who call the shots from the demands of the workers whose employment conditions they dictate from afar, or where “gig” employment frees corporations like Uber from even being categorized—let alone held accountable—as employers.
Similarly, public-sector bargaining was not created for a world where governments operate in a constant state of forced austerity, saddled with growing debt and subjected to relentless privatization. Nor can it survive conditions where taxation is shifted from the rich to the backs of working people, even as governments compete to bestow tax abatements on the nation’s wealthiest corporations in the name of development—as many cities are now doing to lure Amazon’s new facility. Like private-sector workers, government employees are finding that they lack the ability to bargain with the financial forces that are determining the conditions under which they work.
Realizing that they must revitalize bargaining in response to these new conditions, public-sector unions began to experiment with new approaches in the aftermath of the Great Recession. Since 2012, teachers’ unions affiliated with the NEA and the AFT in Chicago, St. Paul, and Seattle, and municipal workers affiliated with the SEIU and AFSCME in San Diego and Los Angeles, have sought to expand the ranks of those who participate in collective bargaining, open up its processes, and broaden its purposes. They have invited community allies to help craft bargaining demands that advance shared goals, then insisted that these allies get a seat at the bargaining table.
These experiments have used bargaining to challenge how big money controls the public agenda. Chicago teachers documented the loss of tens of millions of dollars in school funding to toxic interest-rate swaps foisted on the school district by private managers, and millions more in tax giveaways to wealthy corporations; Los Angeles municipal workers found that their city spent more in fees to wealthy Wall Street firms than it did maintaining streets; St. Paul teachers discovered that their school district did business with banks that foreclosed on students’ families during the school year; and Seattle teachers exposed rampant racial inequities. Strong union-community alliances used bargaining to address these issues.
These experimenters convened at Georgetown University in 2014 and gave a name to their approach, one that resonates deeply with the language of Catholic social teaching. They called it Bargaining for the Common Good.
The teacher uprisings this past spring took up Bargaining for the Common Good in style if not in name. In West Virginia, teachers refused to return to work until all state workers had received a pay increase equal to theirs. In Oklahoma, teachers protested the state’s failure to fairly tax wealthy oil and gas interests. In Arizona, they demanded that no further tax cuts be enacted until the state’s per-pupil spending on education reached the national average.
Although the nascent effort to reinvent public-sector bargaining has a long way to go, there is reason to believe that Janus will accelerate it. To survive, unions know they must enlist allies and cultivate public support by defending the common good. As they find ways to do this, there is also reason to believe that their successes might help revitalize our deeply broken system of private-sector bargaining. Just as the success of private-sector bargaining after World War II provided a model for spreading public-sector bargaining in the 1960s, public-sector experiments with Bargaining for the Common Good could in time inspire new private-sector bargaining models.
As unions struggle to respond creatively to this crucial moment, can we expect the same from Catholic leaders? Pope Francis eloquently defends unions and condemns “the economy of exclusion and inequality”; some influential U.S. bishops echo him. But overall, the U.S. church’s defense of collective bargaining needs to be more than an afterthought, remembered only when it is imperiled. It isn’t only unions that are facing an existential crisis after Janus—so is Catholic social teaching on labor.