By now most people have heard about the schism that roiled the American labor movement last summer. When the AFL-CIO wrapped up its Chicago convention in July, reelecting John Sweeney as president, several unions that had been threatening to leave the coalition decided the moment had come to do so.
The departing unions included the two largest in the AFL-CIO, the Service Employees and the Teamsters, besides the Food and Commercial Workers, and the clothing, hotel, and restaurant workers. They joined the Carpenters, which had left the AFL-CIO five years ago, to form the Change to Win federation with the Laborers International Union (LIUNA) and the United Farm Workers (UFW). The UFW subsequently withdrew from the AFL-CIO, while LIUNA, still a member of Change to Win, continues for the meantime as a member of the AFL-CIO, pending a final decision on departing. Thus far the AFL-CIO has lost more than 35 percent of its affiliated membership, a disaster of unprecendented scope.
What led to this breakup? The dissident unions’ demands make for a long list, but it’s the frustration and anxiety behind the demands that really matter. Presidents of the disembarking unions noted with alarm the continued erosion of labor’s foothold in the workforce, union membership having dropped to 12.5 percent of the nation’s total, and just 8 percent in the private sector, the lowest proportion in fifty years. (The recent elimination of tens of throusands of unionized jobs at Ford is a dramatic illustration of the problem.) The dissident unions placed primary blame for this decline on the failure to devote sufficient resources to organizing, and ultimately on a failure of leadership on the part of John Sweeney. Their dissatisfaction with Sweeney was such that the dissidents considered running a candidate against him, but dropped that idea when they were unable to move their voting strength above the 40-percent range. They jumped ship, instead.
As a former union president-from 1979 to 1999 I headed the Bricklayers and was a member of the AFL-CIO Executive Council-I supported Lane Kirkland’s successor, Tom Donahue, when John Sweeney ran against him ten years ago. But in one sense last year’s political challenge to Sweeney was simply the next turn of a wheel that began rolling with the campaign against Kirkland and Donahue. The anti-Sweeney slogans of last summer brought to mind Yogi Berra’s famous “déjà vu all over again,” so similar were they to the slogans that Sweeney’s supporters used against Kirkland and Donahue a decade ago. Now, as then, dissidents claim the labor movement can survive only if the AFL-CIO-under new leadership-immediately and radically restructures both itself and its affiliated unions, and devotes many more resources to organizing.
That rationale is as wrong now as it was then. It didn’t work for the last ten years, a decade in which membership of AFL-CIO affiliates went down rather than up, and it won’t work for the next ten. It won’t work because organizing is not labor’s major problem. Whatever the merits of new leadership, restructuring, and the reallocation of resources, such measures will not materially change the condition of the labor movement in America. For the situation that faced Lane Kirkland a decade ago still faces John Sweeney and the labor movement today. The problems are myriad and overlapping:
• A massive shift in our economy from the manufacturing and allied sectors to the service sectors;
• An equally massive geographic shift in population and employment from the northeastern quadrant of the nation to the Sun Belt;
• The unrestricted ability to move capital to exploit the cheapest labor available, whether in this country or abroad;
• Erosion of the National Labor Relations Act of 1935 by the courts and Congress, to the point where a determined employer with deep pockets can make it impossible, within the law, for employees to organize;
• A business community emotionally and financially committed to creating “a union-free environment”;
• Dramatic changes in age, gender, and ethnic make-up of the work force;
• A rapidly changing culture in the work force, in union members, and in society generally.
Over the past quarter-century, these powerful forces hit the U.S. labor movement hard and fast. In light of the changes, I am convinced that union membership would have declined regardless of what the AFL-CIO-and, more important, its constituent unions-did during the Kirkland, Donahue, and Sweeney administrations. Alas, it is not merely a question of tactics and leadership, but of the ongoing, fundamental demoralization of the U.S. labor movement.
What has happened to the union movement in this country? The conventional wisdom (summed up by Tom Geoghegan in Which Side Are You On? [New Press]) says that American labor suffers in large part from a failure of dedication and imagination on the part of its leadership. That doesn’t square with what I saw when I was involved in the movement. The AFL-CIO under Kirkland and Donahue consistently played a proactive role as model, catalyst, and facilitator-the only roles the AFL-CIO can play-in the struggles of affiliated unions to cope with the new world they faced. Their efforts were varied and substantial, including developing new approaches to collective bargaining, prodding unions to focus resources more effectively, and so on.
My point is that what separates the new breed of labor leader from the old is not the ability to adopt new methods. The new breed may be more concerned with packaging themselves for the media-adopting a stance, as Arch Puddington notes in his recent biography of Lane Kirkland, of “public relations über alles.” But while “America needs a raise” is a smart complaint, it isn’t a strategy. Public-relations programs cannot in themselves overcome the two colossal impediments to union strength: labor laws that make sustained organizing growth impossible, and the unrestricted ability to move capital to exploit the cheapest labor available anywhere in the world. As a practical political matter, neither of these obstacles will be removed in the near future, and panicked calls for essentially technocratic changes will only distract attention from them. One sure result of the AFL-CIO’s political fracture will be to reinforce the belief that labor’s problems primarily reflect the inability of labor’s leaders to get their act together.
The reality is that labor’s problems are much, much larger. Last summer’s AFL-CIO convention offered its fair share of drama, and reporters who specialize in labor issues are still nibbling on the institutional rivalries, personality clashes, and ambitions-both real and imagined-that underlie the public debate. Beneath the political intrigues loom far more important issues, ones that require not journalists to help us make sense of them, but philosophers. Twentieth-century Catholic philosophers and social critics like Jacques Maritain and Romano Guardini come to mind. And Josef Pieper, whose 1951 treatise, Leisure: The Basis of Culture (St. Augustine’s Press), assessed modernity’s spiritual poverty, continues to provide insight into why the effort to create a humane society remains elusive.
“Leisure” as used by Pieper is not to be confused with “idleness” or the “leisure classes.” Rather it is the state evoked by Psalm 45 and its call to “be still, and know that I am God.” By “culture” Pieper meant not merely an affection for the arts, but something far more comprehensive-“those gifts and qualities which while belonging to man, lie beyond the immediate sphere of his needs and wants.” In this sense, leisure lies at the foundation of all that makes life valuable to us, including religion. Pieper saw that the claims of a world of “total work” perverted leisure into mere recreation, perhaps with some diverting amusements thrown in, that simply refreshed a worker so that he could return to work. Thus did the economic arrangements of modernity succeed in destroying “the primary source of man’s freedom, independence, and immunity within society.”
For Pieper, this destructive force lay in a new source of social power that chained the human spirit to “the ever-turning wheel of buying and selling.” Buying and selling were not new, of course, but linked to a new “principle of utility.” Noting Max Weber’s criticism of modern society, where “one does not only work in order to live, but one lives for the sake of one’s work,” Pieper observed that this view and its associated values were becoming so ingrained that “it is difficult for us to see how in fact it turns the order of things upside-down” [my emphasis]. And indeed, we see this distortion everywhere today: a world in which the order of things has been turned upside-down.
Overstated? I don’t think so. We live in an era of free-trade triumphalism in which views and values once considered extreme have become routine. Take, for instance, New York Times columnist Thomas Friedman’s “A Race to the Top” (June 3, 2005), where he castigates Europe’s blue-collar workers for failing to rise to the challenge of global competition. European workers face “the end of a world of benefits they have known for fifty years”-and in Friedman’s opinion, they have no one to blame but themselves. He lets us in on “the dirty little secret...that India is taking work from Europe or America not simply because of low wages...[but] because Indians are ready to work harder.” Friedman smugly bemoans the diminished work ethic of decadent Old Europe, calling it “a bad time for France and friends to lose their appetite for hard work-just when India, China, and Poland are rediscovering theirs.” French voters, he concludes, are indulging the pipe dream of “trying to preserve a thirty-five-hour work week in a world where Indian engineers are ready to work a thirty-five-hour day.”
The thirty-five-hour work day: another sign of how, as Pieper put it, “the world of work lays claim to the whole field of human existence,” while globalization cheerleaders like Friedman stand by and applaud.
As to Friedman’s thesis, I see no evidence that the workers of France or of the rest of Old Europe are losing their appetite for hard work. Indeed, they complain that their work is being taken away from them. And not only their work. Thanks to the kind of globalization Friedman praises, they are losing a culture that has taken centuries to create-a deep culture, at the core of which were well-paying jobs with the likelihood of a lifetime to develop career, occupational, and craft capabilities; excellent health care with equally good health insurance; the prospect of living in retirement with dignity; as well as such grace notes as small shops and businesses, small farmers selling produce in local markets, and quiet Sundays to spend with the family. A nostalgic view? Not really. It is simply the view that “globalization” need not be shaped to the interests of only one segment of society.
Yet short of turning back globalization, what can realistically be done to bring about the dream that seems increasingly to elude our grasp? Where can we look for recourse? To Congress? Ostensibly, it represents geographical political interests-but business is by far the largest contributor to congressional campaigns. Would anyone maintain that Congress, particularly in light of the last round of tax cuts, represents the economic interests of the nation as a whole? Does the Federal Reserve Board? The President’s Council of Economic Advisors? The White House National Economic Council? The U.S. International Trade Commission? The Office of the U.S. Trade Representative? Anyone?
We are told that these bodies represent all of us, yet no one with a significant labor background serves on any of them, and in reality they represent the economic interests of only one set of stakeholders in our society: the business community, and more recently the financial segment of that community. Businessmen and financiers are important stakeholders in our society and vital to the energy of our economy. But are their economic interests more important than those of farmers, professional people, workers, or the 10-plus percent of our society that lives in poverty and isn’t represented by anybody?
In The Divine Right of Capital (Berrett-Koehler), Marjorie Kelly writes that pursuing an ideal of sustainable prosperity for all means “embedding democratic principles in our economic structures.” The challenge, she argues, is to fashion a fulfillment of the American Revolution, “building a world of economic liberty and justice for all...[to] complete the design in the economic realm that the framers began in the political realm.” Kelly focuses on corporations and corporate governance, which makes sense in light of the fact that many U.S. corporations have more power than most governments. The place to begin is with the nation’s macroeconomic decision-making structures. And I think we could do worse than to start with the National Accord that Lane Kirkland negotiated with President Jimmy Carter in 1979. Unfortunately the accord never got very far (the Carter administration self-destructed before the plan could be implemented), but its basic premise was sound: all stakeholders in an economy must be brought together to develop economic policy for the nation, and that doing so will require promoting labor-management cooperation at the company and industry level. These efforts must be revived.
Obviously, others are not so convinced. Having experienced the heady thrills and economic payoffs of recent decades, wringing extravagant tax concessions from communities and closing down plants in search of lower-wage workers, business seems to have lost all institutional memory. According to an excellent 2003 study, Agents of Change: Crossing the Post-Industrial Divide by Charles Heckscher, Michael Maccoby, and their European colleagues, large sectors of business have concluded that “we do not need stakeholder systems anymore-that whatever the situation was in the past, the time has come for pure market individualism.” This theme resonates in influential publications like the Economist, which has gone out of its way to hack at the German practice of labor-management cooperation in running businesses. The current world trading system runs a game with loaded dice: a strong World Trade Organization with sanctioning powers but no labor standards and a weak International Labor Organization with good standards but no enforcement powers. In the United States, meanwhile, the absence of general economic democracy was, until fairly recently, hidden by a rising standard of living for workers, a reduction in the gap between rich and poor, and the ameliorative effects of welfare programs. In all three areas, however, the dynamic is now reversed.
The implications of failing to create a more humane society are grave, and only arrogant fools would be willing to risk it. Unfortunately, we are caught in the grip of highly competent and very arrogant fools, both in government and in the dominant segment of the business community.
In What’s the Matter with Kansas?(Metropolitan Books), Thomas Frank describes the devastation wrought on parts of Kansas by the pure market individualism that has become our prevailing national ethos. “If Kansas is the concentrated essence of normality,” Frank writes, “then here is where we can see the deranged gradually become normal, where we can look into that handsome, confident, reassuring, all-American face-class president, quarterback, Rhodes scholar, bond trader, builder of industry-and realize we are staring into the eyes of a lunatic.” Where Tom Friedman sees a celebration, Thomas Frank sees an asylum. And the lunatics-for the meantime, anyway-are firmly in control.
The situation is not hopeless. These impediments can be overcome, but not tomorrow or even the day after tomorrow, and then only through changes in our political and economic culture. The challenge to labor, then, is twofold: to develop a long-term strategy to bring about that cultural change, not only in society, but in the labor movement also; and to find ways to involve rank-and-file members in the process of developing that strategy.
Those outside the labor movement should pray that labor succeeds in the continuing effort to create a more humane society, since the stark reality is that nobody else can do it. In his 1958 book, Reflections on America (Gordian Press), Jacques Maritain balanced his misgivings about capitalism with a belief that the U.S. labor movement would ultimately play the leading role in humanizing the system he so profoundly mistrusted. Noting the power of what he called “big money,” Maritain warned that the full development of his vision of “economic humanism” wasn’t right around the corner. It would take a long time, he predicted-at least a century.
Given the trends of the 1970s and 1980s, when “big money” abrogated the social contract forged in the National Labor Relations Act of 1935, we may now need to add a few years to Maritain’s estimate. As a society, we have taken some giant steps backward. In The Right Nation: Conservative Power in America (Penguin), two reporters for the Economist, John Micklethwait and Adrian Woodbridge, provide an excellent review of four decades of conservative ascendancy. With the sympathy you would expect from Economist reporters, The Right Nation shows us how the shattered party of Barry Goldwater became the effective political movement that forty years later elected and reelected George W. Bush, and more important, continues to shape cultural dialogue. The success of conservatives in hijacking public political discourse proves that ideas count, and that politicians will follow them-ideas, at any rate, that come packaged with large amounts of money. In this context of well-funded strategic solidarity on the right, the recent union disaffiliations look particularly tragic. The defection of up to 5 million members from America’s trade-union center will be devastating over time, and we may need to add yet more decades to Maritain’s century.
The ship of labor, though, is not so much in danger of sinking as it is of merely continuing to drift, with no clear idea of where it needs to go and how to get there. To be sure, the U.S. labor movement needs to organize more workers, but how and to what end? One critical proximate end would be to reverse the loss of real earnings and benefit programs most U.S. workers have been suffering for the last decade. Another would be to bring to a much larger segment of society the considerable benefits of unionism: according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, union workers’ median weekly earnings in 2004 were 27 percent higher than their nonunion counterparts, and more than five times as many had defined-benefit pensions. But such laudable objectives will not stem the decline in labor’s effectiveness, let alone reverse it. Those who give organizing top priority would do well to reflect on a bit of Thomistic wisdom: That which is first in the order of intention, is last in the order of execution. Organizing requires much more than simply allocating more resources.
The problem with most of the proposals advanced by the dissident unions this past summer is not that they are silly; rather, a case can be made for almost all of them. Still, they are the kind of things you see when you look through the wrong end of a telescope. The big picture is missing. The right end of the telescope focuses first on the members as people who work, then looks to create the kind of society that permits them to live a full human life, both on and off the job.
In his fascinating 1940 autobiography, the English stone-carver Eric Gill (he fiercely rejected being called a “sculptor” or “artist”) suggested where those of us prompted by a progressive vision of society ought to start our thinking. “My socialism,” Gill wrote, “was from the beginning a revolt against the intellectual degradation of the factory hands and the damned ugliness of all that capitalist industrialism produced....It was not so much the working class that concerned me as the working man-not so much what he got from working as what he did by working.”
Gill’s point is not that income is unimportant, but that in addition to questions of distribution and decent working conditions, a truly human life is one that enables people to find satisfaction and pleasure in their work. Yes, unions must give day-to-day priority to wages and conditions. But Gill’s insight illuminates three more things they need to be doing: addressing more intensively the professional, occupational, and craft needs of their members; striving to gain for their members an effective voice in designing both the work and the product of their work; and building internal structures to assure that members have an effective voice within their own organizations.
• Meeting the professional/craft needs of members. It’s fairly easy for unions to determine, and fulfill, their members’ need for professional and skill training. In the bricklayer’s union, we used polling to gauge which programs were most important to members, and discovered that training programs outranked both medical and pension plans. In construction, where employment for the most part is by the job or project, skill determines both the quality of jobs open to a worker and the security of employment, and training programs help workers to increase both the depth and breadth of their skills. But the issues cut deeper than economics alone to the question of the pride people take in the quality of their work. To foster these feelings, and to enhance the perception that union workers were more skilled and more productive than nonunion workers (a perception shared, incidentally, by nonunion workers at that time), we established a “Craft Is Back” program, honoring our members’ skills and devoting more union and industry resources to training.
That such programs would resonate with construction craft workers is obvious, but the approach has traction in other occupations as well. I recall a conversation a few years back with the head of a European construction union; we were comparing notes on such matters as member attendance at union meetings when he noted that his son, who was a baker, had felt “afflicted” and bored with union meetings-until his union started sponsoring classes in, and discussions on, baking techniques.
• Providing an effective voice for members in designing both their work and the product of their work. This objective is not as mystical as it may sound. In fact, up until the mid-1980s, it appeared as though we might be at the dawn of a new era in labor-management relations in the United States. Back then, gifted union leaders, working together with far-sighted industrialists and corporate officers, and buttressed by the field work of tough-minded academics, were exploring ways to increase worker participation in job decision making. The talk was all about how to expand the scope of matters jointly addressed by labor and management in order to establish a continuing working relationship. This would replace the intense antipathies generated by the bargaining clash at the end of a labor agreement-typically the only sustained interaction between union and employer. The idea was that a continuing relationship between contract negotiations would give each side a better understanding of the problems faced by the other. Collective bargaining would place more emphasis on an ongoing flexible process, with labor and management cooperating as independent stakeholders in the strategic direction of the company.
The idea was by no means new; indeed, it has deep roots in Catholic social thought. I recall a conversation with Michael Harrington in which he traced the vision back to Wilhelm von Ketteler, bishop of Mainz, in the 1840s. In George G. Higgins and the Quest for Worker Justice (Rowman & Littlefield), John J. O’Brien concisely traces the exciting evolution of the idea in Catholic social thought from the mid-nineteenth century, with its impact on Rerum novarum, through the twentieth-century work in the United States of the men and women associated with the Social Action Department of the National Catholic Welfare Council. As for the AFL-CIO, its concern over the years has been to ensure that “participation” would enhance cooperation with workers, not to co-opt them but to promote genuine worker participation programs that expand rather than replace collective bargaining.
A quarter-century ago it appeared that this might happen. Instead developed the seemingly sudden emergence of a global labor market, with lightning-fast capital flashing to wherever labor was cheapest, and a decade-plus of Reaganism and Thatcherism, bookended by Democratic compliance (Carter’s obsession with deregulation, Clinton’s with free trade). Corporate profits soared, the rich got very much richer, and the rest is history-a history we need to reverse.
• Drawing members into union decision making. What is widely regarded as apathy among working people concerning what we think of as “worker issues” is not really apathy. It is more akin to futility, the feeling that nobody in power-in government, in the workplace, or in the unions-really cares what they think, and that they have no real voice in those things most important to them. For unions, this is an institutional tragedy, because they exist precisely to give workers a means to shape their fates. The genius of the Gompers generation in setting the course of the U.S. labor movement lay in its deep-gut understanding of a key paradox: The whole point of collective action through unions is to empower individuals.
Today, workers most in need of empowerment are union members who are Republicans. Many are strong trade unionists who nonetheless feel that their overall values are better reflected in the GOP. An effective way to accommodate their hopes and harness their energies would be to form Republican and Democratic subcommittees of labor’s political action committees and utilize the contributions from members for candidates of their respective parties who favor labor issues. The Republican subcommittee could work to give members a voice within the GOP. That voice would never have the strength of business interests, but given sufficient resources it would become one that could not be totally ignored. It would also provide space for Republican officials who support labor on many issues and all too frequently find their thanks in the form of opposition from a Democrat backed by labor.
The logic for accommodating our Republican members is compelling, even to someone like me, a lifelong Democrat and a former member of the Democratic National Committee. It is a fact that at least 30 percent of union members are Republicans, and a substantially larger number will vote Republican in given elections, depending on the issues. Union members have many roles other than “workers.” Their other life experiences will shape their political views, and those views must be respected if unions wish to keep their loyalty. Furthermore, as Leon Fink’s work on the Knights of Labor and American politics (Workingman’s Democracy, University of Illinois Press) amply demonstrates, the interests of a political party and of the labor movement are never the same for very long, so a union can never afford to become an adjunct of a political party. The views of “political purists” notwithstanding, labor needs to work with whatever party is dominant. Former U.S. Labor Secretary John Dunlop once admonished that a democracy requires people to learn how to work with others on points of agreement even as they disagree. Much to the consternation of radical leftists, that’s how we deal with employers. It must also be how we deal with government.
Empowering members within their unions is a key element of the big-picture view I referred to earlier. As Larry Cohen, now president of the Communications Workers of America, observed online in a paper titled “American Labor-Working Together”: “Union democracy is not a slogan; it must be a reality in everything we do.” This means developing structures that virtually require, as distinct from merely permitting, the participation of ordinary members. It means providing forums where members can informally test their ideas, and establishing educational programs where members can develop informed views on policy issues. At the Bricklayers, a pilot program convinced me that study circles-conducted by trained rank-and-file discussion leaders-constitute perhaps the single most powerful means of developing a shared vision and sense of direction within an organization. Study circles coupled with distance-learning programs would provide the answer to how to create effective and broad-based worker education. Such efforts as distance-learning programs may well require the economies of scale that only the AFL-CIO can provide, perhaps with modules that affiliated unions would use to tailor the program to specific economic sectors.
Ultimately, building a new union culture cannot succeed without corresponding long-term efforts to change the culture of the broader society. In a recent article in Dissent (Winter 2005) titled “Democratizing the Demand for Worker Rights,” Georgetown professor Joseph A. McCartin makes a persuasive argument that unions need to place primary emphasis on their role in bringing democracy to the workplace. Underscoring the link between the distribution of power in the workplace and in the larger society, McCartin quotes early twentieth-century labor reformer Frank P. Walsh’s insight that “political democracy is an illusion unless [it is built] upon and guaranteed by a free and virile industrial democracy.” “We need to advance...arguments that speak directly not only to workers’ aspirations for freedom,” writes McCartin in a later response to comments on his article, “but also to their desire for a say over the economic institutions that affect their lives.”
Demanding political and economic democracy for everyone means moving beyond traditional forms of labor protest. Attacks on corporate excesses and demands for an equitable share in the profits of business can energize workers to strike, but they are not sufficient for the transformation of society necessary to sustain an effective labor movement. That requires articulating a vision of what scholar Peter Faulkner called, in reference to Eric Gill, a “more humanly satisfying social system.” Which brings us back to Jacques Maritain’s vision of “economic humanism.”
Neither Gill nor Maritain tried to spell out a plan to achieve economic humanism. And given the powerful claims made by the upside-down world of total work, there’s no doubt that restoring sanity and turning the order of things right-side up again will take a colossal effort. Any labor leader who thinks there is a quick fix in political action, organizing, or public relations-without addressing the deeper cultural problem-is deluding himself and the membership. Under even the best of circumstances, labor is in for a long, hard struggle. The way to begin transforming demoralization into a renewal of spirit is not to push blame upward to the AFL-CIO, but to lay out the hard facts to the membership and to begin the necessary process of involving them in the reform that will make it possible for labor to move forward.
It will come not in great leaps but in tiny steps. As Thomas Frank notes, it took roughly forty years, from 1890 to 1930, for a progressive movement to bring about the reforms of the New Deal. And of course labor’s battles span not forty years, but much, much longer-over two centuries-just to gain legal status in the United States, and, going back further, ten centuries since the weavers of the Middle Ages began to challenge the divine rights claimed by their employers.
Patience will be required, then, and perseverance. Instead of thinking in terms of this year or next, we should aim to bring about significant social change over a forty-year period-just as the Right did in this country over a similar span. To follow the lessons suggested by The Right Nation, a first objective might be to create a consortium of prolabor think tanks stimulated, if not with fresh funding, with a large portion of the money labor would otherwise spend on political campaigns over the next few political cycles. The first step would be not to eviscerate the AFL-CIO, but to convene a summit of business interests sympathetic to labor, of liberal “big money,” and of those religious organizations and leaders who have as much interest in bringing about a more humane society as in barring abortion and homosexual marriage. The overarching theme must not be to demonize business, bring down capitalism, or end globalization-but to bring about economic democracy.
Concurrent with building an effective coalition of those that the late George Higgins described as “on the side of the angels,” the labor movement must attend to its fundamental internal challenges. This means bringing some harsh messages to the membership-including scrutinizing labor’s complicity in its own demoralization and marginalization. As the German theologian Romano Guardini wrote in Power and Responsibility, “Domination requires not only the passive consent, but also the will to be dominated, a will eager to drop personal responsibility and personal effort.” Broadly speaking, he continued, “the dominated get what they themselves desire; the inner barriers of self-respect and self-defense must fall before power can really violate.”
This is a provocative observation from one who, writing shortly after World War II, had endured twelve years under the most brutally repressive regime in history. And, in my view, it applies to where we are now also. We are all complicit in the mindset that holds that the competition between workers on the basis of labor costs is a natural phenomenon as inevitable as the sun rising in the east. Guardini warns of the situation “when human affairs are so deranged or falsely arranged that those responsible can no longer be named. When this happens...the exercise of power has apparently become a natural force.” To break out of complicity in this sort of fatalism, we must first recognize with Guardini that “history does not run on its own; it is run.” In this sense, history begins anew with each person, and we have both the God-given power to extricate ourselves from our predicaments and the God-given obligation to work to complete the task of his creation. This means not passively capitulating to the notion that nature will take its course, but rather recognizing that what Jacques Maritain called the “ferment of justice and the energies of renewal” will proceed only from vigorous and persevering struggle-and sacrifice.
And that in turn depends on transformation. “What the sick world needs,” concluded Guardini, “is a metanoia, a conversion, a reappraisal of our whole attitude toward life, accompanied by a fundamental change in the ‘climate’ in which people and things are appraised.” Reaching this reappraisal means radically transforming our culture to reject the dehumanization of man implicit in the ideology of the “total world of work” that Josef Pieper decried.
Such a transformation will remain impossible if the labor movement does not harness its capabilities, point them in the right direction, and keep them trained on the goal over a long period. This will involve recognizing the uncomfortable fact that the transformation we seek is not political at root, but spiritual. To be sure, such a recognition takes us beyond the realm of what workers had on their minds when they created unions. But unions have a vital role to play in the larger scheme of things, and I hope that this role will emerge as labor addresses what clearly is within its realm-helping to create an economic and political environment hospitable to the human spirit.