There are few economic issues on which Catholic social teaching is clearer than it is on the value of organized labor. In the church’s view, unions are both an expression of workers’ associative rights and an indispensable counterbalance to employer power. Strong unions increase the likelihood that employees will get their fair share of the economic pie, reducing the need for state intervention in the economy. For the past thirty years, the ability of the American labor movement to serve that protective role has diminished, as private-sector unionization has steadily eroded. Democrats in Congress are seeking a way to make it easier for workers to join unions and thereby, perhaps, help resuscitate this vital force for economic justice.

Employers use all sorts of coercive tactics to prevent private-sector unionization. The new Democratic majority has wasted no time introducing legislation to change the way unions are certified. Called the “card check” bill, the legislation has already passed in the House of Representatives and must now overcome Republican opposition in the Senate and a threatened presidential veto. If it were to become law, it would permit the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) to certify a union as soon as a majority of workers at a plant signed cards authorizing it.

As the law now stands, faced with such a signature-card majority, employers can demand that the NLRB hold elections in which a majority of workers must re-endorse the union in a secret-ballot vote. The existing process is reasonable enough in theory, and Republicans in the Senate have seized on its superficial appearance of fairness to argue that the card-check legislation would itself violate the right of workers not to join a union by depriving them of the secret ballot and thereby subjecting them to union intimidation.

In fact, secret-ballot elections are rife with employer coercion. The delays entailed by the election process give employers time to browbeat workers into voting down the union. During the drawn-out election campaigns, employers routinely require workers to attend antiunion seminars. Unions have no similarly guaranteed (and coerced) access to the workers. And several studies have shown that employers often violate the law flagrantly, firing union supporters and threatening workers with job losses and plant closings.

On the other hand, there is little evidence of misconduct by unions beyond the occasional anecdote about intimidation during card-check elections. One study conducted by Rutgers University and Jesuit Wheeling University on behalf of a prounion group, for example, concluded that workers in secret-ballot elections were twice as likely as workers in card-check elections to experience management coercion, and 50 percent more likely to report that management threatened to eliminate their positions in the event of a union victory. In contrast, the same workers reported negligible union intimidation during card-check elections. This makes sense because a union—as opposed to an employer—can exercise very little leverage over potential members. Employers can, on the other hand, threaten to fire their employees, depriving them of their livelihood as well as a fundamental right of association deeply embedded in Catholic social teaching.

In Laborem exercens (1981), John Paul II summarized succinctly the key elements of the church’s traditionally favorable attitude toward unions:

[M]odern unions grew up from the struggle of the workers—workers in general but especially the industrial workers—to protect their just rights vis-à-vis the entrepreneurs and the owners of the means of production. Their task is to defend the existential interests of workers in all sectors in which their rights are concerned. The experience of history teaches that organizations of this type are an indispensable element of social life, especially in modern industrialized societies.

John Paul’s analysis emphasizes two distinct principles. First, he makes the point—bedrock within Catholic social teaching since Rerum novarum (1891)—that the right to form unions is itself part of workers’ broader human right to associate freely. John Paul’s analysis, however, goes even further. A view of unions as an expression of workers’ right to associate would, by itself, be neutral about whether or not unions should actually exist. As long as workers’ rejection of unionization was not the result of employer coercion, the absence of unions would not be cause for concern. But John Paul is clearly not neutral on the question. Unions are, as he puts it, “an indispensable element of social life, especially in modern industrialized societies” like our own. Accordingly, their absence (or decline) is a cause for concern, apart from any question of employer coercion.

Why might the disappearance of unions—even in the absence of employer coercion—be a reason for alarm? The answer has to do with the key function that unions serve and the place such associations have within Catholic economic thought. The church’s commitment to the principle of subsidiarity means that, all things being equal, it prefers to guarantee economic justice with as little state intervention as possible. Unions play a crucial role in avoiding the need for state involvement in the economy by buttressing the bargaining power of workers and actively defending their interests. When the magisterium talks about leaving questions of economic justice to be resolved in the private sphere, it often has in mind not an unregulated market, but rather the resolution of economic issues through negotiations between employee unions and employers. For example, in Centesimus annus (1991), John Paul said:

[S]ociety and the state must ensure wage levels adequate for the maintenance of the worker and his family, including a certain amount for savings. This requires a continuous effort to improve workers’ training and capability so that their work will be more skilled and productive, as well as careful controls and adequate legislative measures to block shameful forms of exploitation, especially to the disadvantage of the most vulnerable workers, of immigrants, and of those on the margins of society. The role of trade unions in negotiating minimum salaries and working conditions is decisive in this area [emphasis mine].

In other words, unions are a key part of the church’s conception of the sorts of private mediating institutions that take some of the pressure off the state, which must otherwise implement economic justice only through legal interventions in the market. Catholic economic conservatives, who are all too willing to emphasize the church’s focus on mediating institutions in other contexts, are often strangely silent on the importance of unions as private mediating institutions that play a crucial role in fostering justice within the economic sphere.

With such a conception of unions as both expressions of the right of workers to associate and the key counterweight to employer power in the effort to guarantee economic justice, the steady decline of private-sector unionization in the United States over the past few decades is cause for genuine concern. Fewer than one in ten private-sector workers is now represented by a union. The stagnation of real wages for the working class over the same period, despite steady increases in worker productivity and record corporate profits, is yet another reason to respect the church’s emphasis on the vital structural role of unions. In the absence of a vibrant labor movement, U.S. employers have in recent years been able to keep for themselves virtually all the gains from increased worker productivity.

Scholars have pointed to numerous possible causes for the decline of unions. At least part of the reversal of labor’s fortunes can be attributed to structural shifts in the economy, including the steady erosion of manufacturing jobs, which historically had been the center of union strength. The unions themselves also bear some blame. They have often failed to dedicate sufficient resources to organizing efforts and have not always presented a convincing case to workers that they would be better off with union representation. In addition, bureaucratic ossification and corruption within the labor movement, while surely exaggerated by antiunion forces, are nonetheless real problems.

At least part of the story, however, has been coercive opposition to unionization by employers. In virtually every union organizing drive, employers hire highly paid consultants to help them skirt the line of legality in their opposition to unionization. And when, as they often do, employers step well over that line, flaccid federal enforcement of workers’ rights and puny financial penalties make those violations virtually risk free. The U.S. bishops focused on this cause of union decline in Economic Justice for All (1986), where they firmly condemned efforts by employers to prevent workers from organizing. “No one,” they said, “may deny the right to organize without attacking human dignity itself. Therefore, we firmly oppose organized efforts, such as those regrettably now seen in this country, to break existing unions and prevent workers from organizing.”

The card-check bill now pending would strengthen workers’ ability to unionize. It would also plug some of the enforcement holes in the existing law. A revival of the American labor movement would help to correct a badly skewed balance of power within the U.S. economy. This important legislation deserves the attention of those who share the church’s views about the “indispensable” role of unions as instruments of justice.


Related: Which Side Are They On? by Paul Moses

Eduardo M. Peñalver is the Allan R. Tessler Dean of the Cornell Law School. The views expressed in the piece are his own, and should not be attributed to Cornell University or Cornell Law School.

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Published in the 2007-04-20 issue: View Contents
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