Happy Labor Day!
Enjoy your picnic / barbeque / day off before the busy-ness of fall.
But think first, for maybe a few minutes more than you’d like, about labor, unions, and the hazards to the solitary worker in a profit-driven global economy.
First: Are unions good? Bad? Both?
I grew up in a household that was strongly pro-union. My grandfather had spent time in railroad stockyards in his very early years, had seen the kinds of injuries that come with unregulated, neglectful management, and maintained his own construction company as a strictly-enforced union shop.
I also grew up in a household that was strongly anti-union. While my grandfather was a cradle Catholic and determined Democrat, my grandmother, my primary care-giver, was a passionate Evangelical Protestant, committed Republican, and very aware of the reputation for corruption held by some of our major unions.
I found myself thinking of unions as we traveled in Finland and Sweden. Both countries have high rates of union participation: about 75% in Finland, about 70% in Sweden.
And both, according to the GINI Index, which measures income inequality, are among the most equitable nations in the world. In Finland, the highest-earning ten percent receive on average about 5.6 times more per year than the lowest ten percent. In Sweden, that number is 6.2.
Compare that to the US, where the top 10 on average make 15.9 percent more than the bottom 10%, and union membership has fallen to 11%, the lowest rate since the 1930s.
|Growing Apart: A Political History of American Inequality|
In an interesting discussion, If Labor Dies, What'sNext? , Harold Meyerson explores the rise and fall of the US labor movement, and probes the ways that globalization, loopholes in US labor law, and a hard shift back toward laissez-faire capitalism have made it increasingly difficult for blue-color workers to survive on a weekly pay-check, and have weakened safeguards and benefits for most American workers.
Meyerson’s discussion raises important questions about labor, liberalism, economic theory, but it doesn’t address the complaint against unions most deeply held by the US public: union corruption fueled by monopoly, patronage, and lack of transparency. An interesting piece by long-time union organizer Bob Fitch on Why Unions Can’t Organize explains the ways US labor law diverges from labor law in other developed nations and fuels both perception and reality of corruption:
Our unions act differently from European unions because they are institutionally different. In France—as in Italy and Spain—three main federations, corresponding to the three major political tendencies on the left—compete for members. In northern Europe and Scandinavia, unions sit on corporate boards. And they control labor parties that even in opposition can veto government policy.
What distinguishes American unions from unions elsewhere is not just that they don’t have a labor party. It’s not just their weak leverage in a weak state. What really marks them is their peculiar localistic character.
. . . Our peculiar local monopoly, boss-client system—which reminds one more of European feudalism than European social democracy—is what constitutes the true obstacle to organizing. Patronage, racial exclusion, lack of democracy, and corrupt practices don’t constitute abuses of the system. They are the system.
So – are we better off if unions die?
Ask the army of “contingent” workers, now 40% of the US workforce: no regular schedule, no benefits, no paid-time off, no recourse when let go.
Or the army of “almost full-time” part-timer workers, unable to survive on their part-time wages, forced to work part-shifts, odd hours, on-call for little pay.
Or the many families dependent on two paychecks, with no guaranteed leave, minimal time off, terrified they’ll face unexpected pregnancy or an extended illness.
Should we support Right to Work legislation, that kicks the last legs out of faltering unions?
Or simply shrug, say “it’s not my problem,” and look the other way?
In any political, ethical, economic discussion, I find myself centering back to the age-old question: who is my neighbor? And what does it mean to love that neighbor?
Catholic teaching on “solidarity” historically insists that love of neighbor extends to concern about working conditions, living wages, equitable distribution of the fruit of labor.
Baptist theologian Melissa Snarr, like Catholic theologians before her, argues in All You that Labor that “solidarity” is rooted in Christ’s solidarity with suffering humanity. She describes the ways labor solidarity has sometimes excluded workers “who, because of their race, citizenships status, or gender, were seen as not furthering the immediate interests of dominant union members,” and points toward a solidarity that goes far beyond this:
By contrast, religious conceptions of solidarity find their origin, ground, and end explicitly in the more inclusive love of God and God’s vision for the world. . . Ultimately, proponents of theological solidarity contend, “We are all really responsible for all.” . . . God’s deep, equal valuing of each person invites followers to embody God’s love by loving the neighbor through solidarity.
Solidarity, labor, unions: we hear those words from the angle of our own experience, our own political perspective, the slant of our own national story. Sometime we nod in agreement. Sometimes we cringe and turn away.
We are like the rich young ruler, approaching Jesus in hopes of a simple one-time solution, and invited instead into a narrative rich with complexity, a command that call us to love our neighbor not just with a quick handout or a pleasant smile, but with all our economic, physical, political strength and mind.
Loving the neighbor in this case means wrestling with the complexities of labor law: affirming the importance of unions, while asking for political solutions to legislation that enforces institutional dysfunction or undermines effectiveness.
Loving the neighbor also means affirming and embracing creative solutions, like President Obama’s announcements this week regarding eligibility for overtime and re-definition of "independent contractor."
And loving the neighbor means steering our own spending dollars towards businesses that seek to treat employees fairly, and away from companies that have led the way in treating workers like underpaid, disposable cogs in a highly profitable machine.
In his first Apostolic Exhortation, “Evangelii Gaudium, The Joy of the Gospel,” Pope Francis addressed at length the social dimensions of the Christian faith, and the dangers of allowing economic interests to reign supreme:
203. The dignity of each human person and the pursuit of the common good are concerns which ought to shape all economic policies. At times, however, they seem to be a mere addendum imported from without in order to fill out a political discourse lacking in perspectives or plans for true and integral development. How many words prove irksome to this system! It is irksome when the question of ethics is raised, when global solidarity is invoked, when the distribution of goods is mentioned, when reference in made to protecting labour and defending the dignity of the powerless, when allusion is made to a God who demands a commitment to justice. At other times these issues are exploited by a rhetoric which cheapens them. Casual indifference in the face of such questions empties our lives and our words of all meaning. Business is a vocation, and a noble vocation, provided that those engaged in it see themselves challenged by a greater meaning in life; this will enable them truly to serve the common good by striving to increase the goods of this world and to make them more accessible to all.
204. We can no longer trust in the unseen forces and the invisible hand of the market. Growth in justice requires more than economic growth, while presupposing such growth: it requires decisions, programmes, mechanisms and processes specifically geared to a better distribution of income, the creation of sources of employment and an integral promotion of the poor which goes beyond a simple welfare mentality. I am far from proposing an irresponsible populism, but the economy can no longer turn to remedies that are a new poison, such as attempting to increase profits by reducing the work force and thereby adding to the ranks of the excluded.
205. I ask God to give us more politicians capable of sincere and effective dialogue aimed at healing the deepest roots – and not simply the appearances – of the evils in our world! Politics, though often denigrated, remains a lofty vocation and one of the highest forms of charity, inasmuch as it seeks the common good. We need to be convinced that charity “is the principle not only of micro-relationships (with friends, with family members or within small groups) but also of macro-relationships (social, economic and political ones)”.