Some time this spring the U.S. Supreme Court will most likely hand down a decision in the case of Janus v. American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees (AFSCME). The facts and background are briefly this: Although under federal law no one can be forced to join a union, someone who works in a union or agency shop, a workplace in which a majority of employees have voted to unionize, can be compelled to pay his share of the costs of the union’s collective bargaining efforts on behalf of workers, since all employees benefit from the union’s activity in this respect, but not the amount the union spends on behalf of its political activity. Mark Janus is a public employee in the state of Illinois and is employed in an agency shop. He objects to having to pay his share of the union’s representation fees. The arguments made on his behalf are familiar to anyone acquainted with American political rhetoric. Janus’s freedom is being abridged, so it is said, he is the victim of coercion. And so on.
Now some of the discussion about the case focuses on the fact that AFSCME is a public employee union. And it is true that the status of public employees is different from employees in the private sector. Historically, public employee unions have not been as necessary as unions in the private sector. In some instances, with the federal government, for example, the employing agency does not have the power to collectively bargain with a union over much that is substantive, such as wages, since for the most part those are standardized across the federal government as a whole. And it must be admitted that frequently, though not always, public agencies have treated their employees better than private employers have, who historically have been guilty of horrible abuses with regard to wages or working conditions. But this is not to say that public employee unions are not necessary, especially at the local level, and even in the federal government they can intervene to prevent unfair or arbitrary treatment by a supervisor.
Why do I speak in my title of anti-union hypocrisy? Some of those arguing on behalf of Mr. Janus are claiming that they are against agency shops only for public sector unions. Thus at nationalreview.com, David Harsanyi entitled his pro-Janus article, “Public-Sector Unions Deserve to be Destroyed.” But anyone who reads his article will see that much of Harsanyi’s argument applies equally to private-sector unions. He speaks of the coercion involved in compelling someone to either join a union or contribute to its collective bargaining costs. And he suggests that even if unions raise wages, that’s because they raise everyone’s wages.
Even if we concede that collective bargaining negotiations might raise the average salary of teachers, it may very well depress [a particular teacher’s] salary. It is just as easy to argue that collective bargaining hurts the good teacher.
What Harsanyi means here is that while unions might raise every teacher’s salary, the good, the mediocre, the poor, an exceptionally talented teacher might be able to raise his own salary more without a union than he would achieve under a generalized salary increase for all teachers obtained by the union. This is a classic appeal to individual self-interest, to looking out for number one, to a disregard for one’s colleagues and fellows, even of pitting workers against each other. Harsanyi and those who make similar arguments know well that this appeal to individualism is merely a smokescreen, a means of keeping economic power in the hands of employers and owners. Moreover and most importantly, such an attack on worker solidarity, a classic case of the divide and conquer strategy, applies equally to all cases of unionization, private or public. In short, this case is nothing but an all-out attack on unions, disguised as an attack on public-sector unions.
Outside public employment the percentage of unionized workers is only about 6.5%. There are many reasons for this, including the decline of industrial jobs, employer threats and coercion, high turnover among retail workers, the general anti-union attitude which has infected even blue-collar workers, and, it must be admitted, less than stellar conduct by some unions at some times. But in the public sector about 34% of employees are unionized. Thus the labor movement derives much of its funding from public sector unions. Opponents of unions know this very well, and know that if they can essentially put public sector unions out of business, they can further cripple the already-weakened power of organized labor.
Some Catholics have written in support of Janus and made much of the fact that unions contribute heavily to Democratic politicians, who, sadly, are mostly pro-abortion. I deplore this myself. But one should notice that if unions are going to participate in the political process, they need to contribute to political candidates and campaigns. Perhaps if Republicans would begin to support unions, they too would receive some of labor’s money. But as long as the Republican party is the willing servant of the most extreme policies devised by corporations and their lackeys, they can hardly expect to receive union campaign contributions, nor can one sensibly complain about union support for Democrats.
Employers have inherently more power in the labor market than individual employees. Unless workers are able to organize, employers will almost always be able to control wages, working conditions, and other matters that affect workers and their families. If workers are deprived of their present legal right to unionize a workplace by majority vote, and to require all who work there either to join the union or contribute their fair share toward unions expenses, then the union is rendered largely powerless. A threat of a strike, for example, would mean little if a union, instead of representing all employees in a particular workplace, were simply a voluntary collection of individuals. An individual worker does not have the moral right to sabotage the welfare of the whole by refusing the join in common efforts for justice and economic betterment.
Aside from the hypocrisy of those who wail loudly about individual worker freedom but who really are interested in their profits, the debate over union shops goes to the heart of some important questions in political philosophy. Is society simply a collection of otherwise free individuals, as John Locke supposed, who come together for limited purposes, but who are not social or political beings by nature? Or are Aristotle and St. Thomas correct that human beings are political animals, that is, beings who naturally live in a community with some kind of political structure, and thus social authority is neither an evil nor a fundamental imposition on human freedom? (I discuss this matter in more detail here.)
We might note that in the Middle Ages guild membership was required for anyone wishing to practice a particular trade, because it was clearly seen that unless everyone was compelled to join, the whole idea of guild regulation of that particular trade would have no meaning. But the radical nature of American individualism makes it very hard for many people to understand that we are by nature part of various interlaced communities. That same radical individualism that wants unions to be nothing but ineffectual voluntary organizations likewise sees marriage and the family as mere voluntary associations, where one party can leave for any reason or none at all. It is ironic that conservatives, who say much on behalf of marriage (whatever their actual behavior may be) are those who claim that unions are examples of intolerable coercion. Liberals, on the other hand, who tend to oppose efforts to weaken unions, would mostly regard laws forbidding or severely restricting divorce as examples of intolerable coercion. But the same principle is at work in both cases. Are people always simply free agents, bound to nothing but what their current whims dictate? Or are we beings naturally rooted in societies, large and small, societies which give us space to thrive and enjoy such genuine freedom as befits our nature, but not a false freedom that allows us to undermine the common good?
The capitalist economic arrangement of separating ownership and work has created an inherently exploitative and unstable situation for workers. While public sector employees are not in exactly the same situation as private employees, in the concrete circumstances of American labor history, public sector unions are a necessity. And more importantly, if public sector unions are nullified, the same arguments will be used to destroy unions altogether, making the entire United States one large “right to work” jurisdiction. This would be a deplorable result for workers and their families, and hence for the entire economy and society. The issue should be clear for Catholics. Summing up over a century of papal teaching, Benedict XVI wrote in Caritas in Veritate (no. 64) that labor unions “have always been encouraged and supported by the Church.” If today unions often support politicians who hold positions profoundly at odds with other points of Christian morality, then the obvious response should be for more Catholic politicians to embrace all the teachings of the Church, to be as outstanding in their support of labor unions as they are of unborn life or of marriage. That this is rarely the case witnesses to the chaos in Catholic discipline and the widespread lack of adherence to the Church’s teaching. But the response must not be to repudiate a labor movement that the Church, especially in this country, did so much to foster and protect. That heritage of both lay and clerical support of organized labor, though little remembered today, forms a glorious chapter in the history of the Church in the United States. If a sufficient number of Catholics recover that memory, then there is the possibility not only of a renewed labor movement, but of a fundamental transformation of American politics, a transformation which could offer Catholics once more an opportunity to participate in the political process without feeling the need to downplay or repudiate any of the teachings of the Church.