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[A heavier task could not have been imposed
Than I to speak my griefs unspeakable;
Yet that the world may witness that my end
Was wrought by nature, not by vile offense,
I’ll utter what my sorrow gives me leave.

—Egeon, The Comedy of Errors]

You have an inalienable right to join a union. Distributists believe this right should be protected unequivocally, provided the union exists for benevolent purposes. Although efforts that would prevent or discourage laborers from unionizing are not only wrong, but folly, we should not absolve unions of all criticism.

Unions have become an embarrassment to the American political economy because many have succumbed to corruption. Corruption can include any behavior opposed to the good purposes of a union. Corrupt unions do little to improve the welfare of their purported beneficiaries and may actually impair labor rights in many instances. Indeed, it is not uncommon for a union to resemble a mafia operation. Generally, criticisms of unions are not unfounded, and people have a right to be upset when unions pose a threat to economic progress, stability, and morality.

With that trite disclaimer out of the way, we can discuss the authentic nature of labor unions and the basis for their existence. In their truest form, unions can do much good to advance the quality of life for workers. Although, the purpose of a union and the motivation for joining one must be ethical. By the same token, criticisms of unions must be properly placed. It is wrong to attack unions fundamentally because, fundamentally, unions have every right to exist. This is one of those “self-evident” truths so ingrained in human nature that any offense against it will most certainly, eventually, be met with failure.

Still yet, it is easy to find basic human rights exploited, as does happen when corrupt unionizers use sacrosanct union rights to shield their nefariousness from sound criticism. We have a responsibility to prevent this. Sound criticisms of unions seek not to attack their right the exist, but instead enforce standards by which they must operate. Unfortunately, most of the currently popular criticisms of unions are deftly misplaced, undermining a basic human right that has long been understood and affirmed.

On May 15, 1891, Pope Leo XIII had already begun the fourteenth year of his pontificate. Having issued thirty-six timeless encyclicals, the Holy Father had already spoken on the abolition of slavery (In Plurimis), condemned Socialism and Communism (Quod Apostolici Muneris, among others), identified the evils of society (Inscrutabili Dei Consilio), and named the source of civil power (Diuturnum). On this day, however, he would issue what has become arguably his most widely-known, influential, and controversial encyclical, Rerum Novarum. The subject matter was capital and labor, and it is here that the Pope spoke most plainly on unions.

One of the assertions in Rerum Novarum is that unions “exist of their own right”. People, by their very nature, gravitate towards associations, or what Aquinas described as “private societies”. One cannot deny humanity one of its defining qualities. Therefore, we find in the First Amendment to the American Constitution the reiteration of “the right of the people peaceably to assemble,” and Paragraph 51 of Rerum Novarum concludes:

“For, to enter into a “society” of this kind is the natural right of man; and the State has for its office to protect natural rights, not to destroy them; and, if it forbid its citizens to form associations, it contradicts the very principle of its own existence, for both they and it exist in virtue of the like principle, namely, the natural tendency of man to dwell in society.”

Immediately the encyclical proceeds to admit that there are times when lawmakers must repress unions, specifically, when the purposes for joining them “are evidently bad, unlawful, or dangerous to the State”. It is interesting, but not unexpected, that this foretelling statement is so often conspicuously overlooked in both pro-union and anti-union circles. The pro-union position obviously does not want to bring light to any argument against their cause. The anti-union position doesn’t want to admit that unions could ever possibly be be just, which the statement shrewdly implies, nor do they want to deal with an opposition that has covered its bases. (It is also likely that both camps have just plain never read Rerum Novarum, and they don’t even know the statement exists.) Many problems we face today could be averted if we were to follow the Pope’s directive to support unions when they should be supported, and prevent them when they should be prevented. However, capitalism, in all its wisdom, seeks to prevent them when they should be supported, and support them when they should be prevented.

The notion that unions are corrupt is a sound criticism when it is true. Although union supporters should keep an eye out for corruption, they tend to ignore or defend it, perhaps because the point is already so belabored by union opponents as it is. The problem with union opponents is that they argue, or at the very least imply, that union corruption is inherent. Make no mistake. It is not. They nonetheless persist in the argument to attack unions fundamentally for the benefits of sensationalism. They would not gain much ground with a less ostentatious assessment. In any event, the stereotype of corruption is not without justification, and one cannot deny that unions seem to have a propensity for bad behavior.

It is curious why this is the case. Why have labor unions so consistently fallen victim to corruption? The reasons for this are two-fold:

The first reason is capitalism. The typical American worker’s union is a mutation rather distant from its natural pedigree. Like a feral dog, the modern union is a product of its environment. It wrestles to exist within capitalism (or semi-capitalism, if you prefer) where labor barely exists as a footnote to more convenient economic variables. Despite being such a young science, economics does a fairly decent job of doing what it set out to do: study the allocation of scarce resources. However, unlike other resources, such as land or capital, labor is unique due to its “human” factor. For this reason, it has always been a difficult element to define and quantify, even for pedants. Economics has yet to fully understand, or appreciate, labor.

How can we therefore expect labor to be appreciated, much less nurtured, amid the private sector, which relies on economics to make policies and decisions?

This neglecting, if not outright hostile, environment has impelled unions to become larger, more militant, and more self-serving than they normally ought to be. The bigger the labor injustice, the bigger the union. As unions vie to become larger and more influential, they inevitably invite mutual corruption between the union and the company, or the union and the politician. The self-serving mandate alone is a major dilemma, as it places the union itself above its principles and members.

The second reason for the apparent corruption amongst unions is that states and societies have been as bad at regulating unions as they have been at nurturing them. There must be a viable set of laws to address unions and their particular susceptibility to corruption. In the absence of such laws, or if they are perverted or not enforced, unions will continue to fulfill their popular stereotype.

While unions bear the legitimate criticisms of their corruption, much of the hatred towards unions amounts to nothing more than immature lambasting reminiscent of school-yard bullying tactics. By taking a moment to consider the efforts of union busters, one can better grasp the magnitude of contempt a capitalist society can have for unions. Capitalism abhors barriers to the free market. Government is the master culprit, but unions are typically near the top of the list. It is ironic that those who propose to remove government intervention in the economy are amongst the biggest proponents of using government to tear down unions that “get in the way” of the market. What these folks fail or refuse to recognize is that unions have as much of a right to be market participants as corporations. Capitalists are willing to sacrifice their principles here in order to merely berate a labor union. For the sake of the free market, one would think unions should be allowed to participate on an equal playing field. It is obvious why capitalists are afraid of this, but their hypocrisy is glaring.

Another general example of union busting is an alternative “free market” approach, which can take the form of a pre-employment contract that exchanges employment for a promise not to unionize. This, of course, is an adhesion contract, and should not be considered any more legitimate than a contract that trades away a person’s right to free speech. How alarming it is that many expect the law to enforce the unconscionable notion that a person may bargain away a basic human right.

Distributism remains the only system that sincerely appreciates this basic human right as a valuable component in an economy, provides a framework that keeps labor unions in check, and does not waste time and resources trying to destroy unionization efforts. It primarily accomplishes this by providing workers with ownership interest in the means of production, which tears down the wall between capital and labor. Decentralized ownership means there is less division between the owner class and the labor class.  This in effect reduces the imperative of labor unions compared to capitalism. When there is less reason to expand enormously and give in to corruption, unions can exist as they naturally should, and the burden on the state to regulate unions will be less. Society can then focus on effective means of protecting unions from any corrupt tendencies.

Distributists accept the reality that unions, good or bad, are inexorable. Collective bargaining is a tool provided by nature. Humans will always take advantage of this, since even stupid people can recognize they will accomplish more as a group than individually. Efforts to bust unions have historically failed and only lead to more frustration and resistance. At best, there will always be the potential for labor injustice, and so there will always be a need for unions. There is no sense in denying this.


About the author: Nicholas C. Hosford


Nick Hosford is originally from New Orleans, Louisiana. He has studied Economics and Political Science for many years and received his B.A. in both subjects from the University of Alaska in 2005. He also received a J.D. from Birmingham School of Law in 2009. He lives with his wife and three children in Vestavia Hills, Alabama. They regularly attend the Traditional Latin Mass.


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  1. Real Unions come out of Family Solidarity. It’s why we used to call each other Sisters and Brothers and respected Seniority, Equality and Mutual Support. We need high levels of Democracy to protect these virtues. Which has, unfortunately, been stamped out by modernist “unions” which have switched from Solidarity to Corporatism and thumbed their overpaid noses at Mondragon.

  2. This is a strawman argument that seeks to brand anyone who criticizes unions as anti-labor. I have never heard of any legislation which seeks to outlaw or restrict unions. I have seen legislation which forces labor unions to use simple democratic methods, like secret ballots, which Unions see as limiting because it prevents them from maintaining their hold on power at the expense and against the will of the members. I have also seen public unions disallowed because of the clear conflict of interest where the members help select the management who they then bargain with.

    Is it a right to join a union? Of course, freedom of association is inalienable and there is no evidence that anyone disagrees with that. Union busters? You mean from 1920? Let’s not continue to fight battles which were won years ago. Let’s look at the problem objectively as it exists today instead of “run[ing] screaming for refuge to the old nursery where [we] learnt [our] stalest proverbs, or the old school where [we] learnt [our] stalest politics.”

  3. I thought this was a fair essay and especially the point about economists not being able to understand the labor variable. Social science is good at understanding everything about society… except people.

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  5. Ed M. waterbury, Ct. USA

    It is documented fact that the vast majority of theft occurs from management such as the thieves of Ponzi scheme like Bernie Madoff and the various Bank real estate and bank . frauds and wayward employees few of whom are union officers.. Any union corruption pales in comparison to the offshore money laundering through the Grand Cayman , Bahams, Bermuda Islands and even Ireland and Brazil to hide money from the USA tax collectors-IRS. Pope Leo the 13th , Pius the 10th and John Paul the 2nd were strong on union membership for working people as much as they were pro family-faith and pro life.John Paul the 2nd supported Lech Walensa and Solidarity in Poland for he knew that freedom of Religion and Labor unions were the two basic keys to Freedom and a middle class free of Communism. Places without unions such Burma, North Korea & Vietnam, Red China and Nazi Germany have or had little freedom of religion let alone a democracy or a middle class free from totalitarion control by a government oligarchy.

  6. Charles,
    If you think Union Busting is restricted to the distant past, you are sadly mistaken. My Dad was a victim of it in the 1990s; when his company was bought out the new company let him go. He was told quietly and confidentially that it was because he had been the shop steward for the Union — Not because of anything he did as shop steward, but because the new company was afraid he might try to organize their employees.

    I would like to say I wish my Dad’s story was unique, but there are too many stories coming out of non-union companies of workers being let go not long after they become part of efforts to unionize their shop.

    I would also point out that some of the issues you bring up could be looked at differently. For example, are secret ballots the only way to hold democratic elections? If so, does that mean that the Caucus system used by some states for their primaries are fundamentally undemocratic? I don’t find too many proponents of secret ballots for unions complaining about the way states hold their primaries. Or one could argue that public ballots are a protection against stuffing the ballot box since everyone can certify that their own vote was recorded properly.

    Also, I don’t find your argument regarding public unions being disallowed to be very compelling. In the first place, the perceived conflict of interest could be applied in other ways to strip other rights from individuals. For example, should a public employee be allowed to vote at all, since they are voting for the people who will manage them. Likewise, by the same standard, members of Unions should not be allowed to hold stock in the company they work for since they would then be in the very same position that a public union would be in (of having members vote for the managers they will bargain with). The balancing of two rights certainly can require a restriction of one or both rights, but never should one right totally obliterate the other.

    Of course the final nail in the coffin of the argument about public un

  7. Your arguments are a continuation of the strawman argument of the essay: anyone who is against union corruption is against labor or labor unions. I am against corruption no matter where it occurs — in the boardroom or in the union hall. I think I am on the side of the Popes in that position.

    I am certainly on the side of FDR who said that public unions striking against the people they are sworn to serve is unthinkable.

    Open ballots more democratic than secret ballots? Really? That discussion comes up every 4 years when Iowa holds its open caucus, but it has a way to change that and that is through a secret ballot in a referendum.

  8. I am a Catholic, I am an American, I am the president of a union representing nearly 200 firefighters and support employees in three different fire departments.

    anti union sentiment and union busting are alive and well. I know this from personal experience, not from reading about it on blogs or hearing talking heads on FoxNews or MSNBC “report” about it. I don’t state that it’s alive and well because I wish it were so, (because I wish it weren’t so). I state it because it’s a fact. Now, it doesn’t take the form of the national guard being organized to suppress the workers and physically assualt them (e.g. the coal wars). Today it involves employers (like local fire departments) hiring law firms for $100,000’s (tax payer dollars) per year for the express purpose of making relations difficult and precarious for the labor union. Or elected officials assaulting labor representatives because of disagreements. It is in the form of elected bodies violating the open public meeting act because they don’t want the public (and especially the public employees) to know what they do or what their decisions are. Or managers hiding public documents when requested becuase they reveal their nefarious actions and deceit.

    you’re right (partly) about public unions not striking (I assume you mean a work stoppage strike and not an informational strike), but remember… a work stoppage strike is supported by the Church when it’s just and doesn’t bring about greater injustice than the one being protested against (kinda like just war doctrine). The Fire fighter’s union (International Association of Fire Fighters – IAFF) has forbidden work stoppage strikes as a condition of being part of the union (because if we don’t work people die) becuase it’s immoral for us to not work. In fact, it was outlawed by the union before it was ever outlawed by the laws of the government(s). But perhaps you’re referencing some other public employees…. just don’t paint with too wide of a brush.
    Our elections in the IAFF are by secret ballot.
    I don’t like corruption either; fighting against it in my local fire department(s) has added 30 hours of work (as the labor representative [or “Union Boss” as one local politician likes to refer to me])to every work week (and I already put in 50 hours as a firefighter). It would be nice if regular citizens who also are opposed to corruption would get more involved with local government by attending the meetings of public boards and governments and asking questions. Or better yet, run for office and throw the good ol boys out!!

  9. I am the daughter of a carpenter and a nurse (32 years experience) and now a certified Catholic school teacher. My experience with unions, carpenter, nursing and public school teachers is terrible. My father had a tiny business (himself and my brother) building pole barns in out county. The union didn’t even WANT the work, yet they destroyed his equipment twice. As a nurse, my manager and I couldn’t implement a trial program to improve patient care because the union wouldn’t allow it. As a parochial school teacher observing the union shenanigans going on, need I say more?
    I find unions obsolete, obstructionist and terribly upsetting in their forced contributions to the Democratic party. Shameful!

  10. The problem with unions are that they are largely about representing the interests of their members without a large consideration of the community at large; they are a collective egoism. They are in this regard quite different from guilds, or how guilds were ideally and in their healthiest periods.

    Obviously, in the current economic situation where corporations and partnerships are simply looking out for the economic interests of their shareholders/partners and labour might be overpowered without the solidarity of unions, they may be acceptable, but I’d say that ideally it is guilds and not unions or corporations(with legal personhood, privileges and state welfare.) that are wanted.

    I’m a traditional and Christian, I can understand that the link between leftwing political parties and causes is unsettling to many, but that is not a primary arguments against unions per se. That has more to do with the historical development of unions and the current political climate, than with anything necessary to their nature.

  11. I encourage anyone who thinks unions are obsolete and worthless to spend some time in the coalfields of Appalachia. While you are there, you might also ask the locals if they think union busting is a thing of the past.

    One of the major coal companies in Appalachia–the company is always in the news–routinely kills large numbers of its miners by forcing them to work in mines that are repeatedly cited for serious safety violations. This same company also kills members of the communities that surround the mines by poisoning the ground water and air; operating improperly maintained and overweight coal trucks on public roads; and through out right murder in some cases. Yet any attempts to hold this company accountable are met with cries of “you environmentalists and socialists are just trying to destroy real jobs.” Furthermore, state and local government officials are all but powerless when it comes to holding these companies responsible for their actions, as they know the companies will bring virtually unlimited resources to bear against them if they dare say enough.

    As for union busting being a thing of the past, or an ultimately unsuccessful enterprise. Again, I think recent events in the coal industry prove otherwise. At one point the UMWA represented somewhere in the neighborhood of 235,000 miners; it now represents 7500. Some say this decline is because fewer people are working in the coal industry, and to some extent this is true. The mining industry has become increasingly mechanized, and thus it now produces more coal than ever with fewer people. Yet this doesn’t account entirely for the aforementioned drop in union membership. If one goes back to the early 1980’s, you find that the coal companies began a systematic and ultimately successful campaign to “bust the UMWA.” The companies chose this period because they knew both Washington and the state houses would not interfere with their campaign. Basically the companies forced the miners to strike by refusing to agree to any contracts that didn’t include draconian cuts in pay and benefits for the miners. Once the miners were out on strike the companies used illegal labor and stockpiled reserves to starve the miners out. Since then, any attempts to reconstitute the union have proved unsuccessful because the companies fire or intimidate anyone who dares to utter the word union.

    Finally, to those that might say, “But so what? How does any of this prove unions are not worthless?” Because it shows that without unions, or some similar means of organizing into a collective body, workers have no hope of holding their employers accountable. Furthermore, to those that say, “Unions are sinister because they funnel money to one party or another.” Given the current political and economic structures, how else are they supposed to be heard?” And no, I’m not implying that funneling money to one party has been beneficial to the unions; rather, I merely asking what’s the other option?

  12. There is nothing quite like seeing, and feeling, cops and troops against picketlines to get a feel for modern Union busting.

    I also see the modern, corporatist
    unions as self-busted.

    Thanks to the Firefighter for a terrfic post! God bless you Brother!

  13. The coal wars? You mean in WV in 1920? That’s what I mean when I say that we should move our arguments into what is happening in the 21st Century. Is management generally against unionization of the their workers? Of course. But that isn’t union busting. Look at the car companies; which are turning out quality cars at a reasonable cost while making money doing it — it isn’t the ones who are unionized. Why would management welcome unions when the evidence is clear they have not helped the industry or the workers. Detroit is a wasteland largely because the unions drove the car companies into the ground with their demands. And the non-union workers in SC and TN making those cars are not victims — they have great jobs.

    Unions can serve a purpose and people have every right to join. Unions that make it mandatory to join in order to work or get certain contracts defeat the logic of freedom of association, however.

  14. The problem with Unions is that none that I know of today actually follow what Pope Leo and his successors called for with their workingman’s associations. They are not focused on forming the whole man and the common good. They are just as materialist as they come, which is why they are so prone to Marxism. The common good of their own pockets is all that matters.

    The old guild system had the advantage of being a top-to-bottom system, which promotes solidarity…at least within the guild. Unions just naturally create class struggle of us vs the boss. Guilds would get drunk together and dress the boss up as Satan and go through town in a parade on a Holy Day. Much better than hating him and trying to bankrupt him!

    Of course as Aquinas and others guilds also had issues with making markets not work through monopoly power. We see that in the AMA’s total clamp down on the supply of doctors in the US. So, there are problems there, too. But I see the vertical system to be much more conductive of solidarity than the present system…which just seems to be very contrary to what Pope Leo called for.

  15. Also, public sector unions (especially teachers) pose such perverse incentives since the money they are trying to get comes from taxes not profits they need to be gotten rid of.

  16. Just wanted to say that I’m with you 100% on public employee unions, BDouglass.

  17. You are largely correct about unions B Douglass, or at least you are in the abstract. But currently they are probably better than no unions and the sort of power that corporations(who utterly subvert the whole point of ancient idea of corporate bodies by being only about private profit.) and large businesses and interests can exert over employees without them.