Monday, September 05, 2005

a Catholic Priest for Right to Work

I am often asked how I, as a Catholic and/or a priest, can support "Right to Work"--"Doesn't that contradict Church teaching?"

Well, let's talk about it.

"Right to Work" is the principle that everyone must be free to affiliate with unions; but never be forced to do so. It is a little-appreciated fact that current federal law gives many special privileges to unions, including the power to obtain "exclusive representation" in the workplace -- i.e., monopoly bargaining power -- and then obtain a contract provision forcing all so "represented" to pay dues and fees as a condition of employment.

Twenty-two state laws, and I believe Guam also, prohibit the latter, forced-dues, but the monopoly-bargaining power remains in effect everywhere, and forced dues remain in effect in 28 states, as well as in exceptions to state Right to Work laws.

For those who say Right to Work contradicts Church teaching, I ask: exactly where does the Church ever teach that working people ought to belong to unions, let alone be forced to affiliate, first through representation, then through payment of money?

"But the Church is on the side of unions! How can a priest not know that?"

Well, I contest the statement that the Church "is on the side of unions." Rather--please note the difference--the Church is on the side of workers, including their right to form and join unions . . . or not. The Church stands with unions only to the extent unions stand with workers; and in any case, the Church has never taken the extraordinary position that workers should be in unions, contrary to whatever they, themselves want or believe!

Now, obviously, many who feel strongly about the value of unions will say such a thing: workers ought to belong to unions. But I say it again: Church teaching, however, is that workers make that decision for themselves; and society, including government, ought to assure workers can exercise that right.

An argument I've often gotten is that unions are good for us. This is supported both from history, and from an analysis of what's wrong with our society.

But this is an argument for the political realm, not the realm of Church teaching; the Church has not, to my knowledge, ever endorsed the idea that workers should be herded into unions "for their own good" -- let alone for the broader common good. Again: what the Church actually says is that the freedom to affiliate is in the common interest, as well as workers' interests. And, with that, I wholeheartedly agree.

There are two arguments that can competently be made for the other side: one is from the principle of solidarity, and the other is that the Church doesn't feel bound to a rigid, individualistic theory of society.

The latter is true; but neither does the Church commit itself to a group-identity approach, with class-warfare and the like. And I think its clear enough the Church would argue that "group rights" can't be justified with disregard of the rights of individuals within the group.

Often, a "Catholic" argument against Right to Work is that you have balance various goods--the good of individual workers in relation to the good of the group.

Accepting that approach for sake of argument, that would be an argument, I think, for the situation that obtains in 22 Right to Work states: unions keep their monopoly-bargaining privileges, with no-forced-dues as a corrective. Unions aren't non-existent in Right to Work states; but they are more accountable. But if you're going to commend a more pragmatic, rather than idealistic, approach, then I fail to see how that can't allow someone to embrace Right to Work on the same, pragmatic basis.

The argument is given that Right to Work will kill unions, or at least neuter them. Whether that be so is beside the point: that's just another way of saying, workers should be pressed into union affiliation because it's good for them or good for society.

The solidarity argument is a more credible one: the idea being that individual workers have some responsibility to stand in solidarity with their fellow workers. That is, indisputably, Catholic teaching.

But does it mean, for example, that one must go on strike? Or might one say, either, I disagree with this strike, in substance or in conduct; or, I have to feed my family, I must continue to work.

I invite anyone to show where the Church has ever said that a worker isn't responsible for making precisely such a choice. Likewise, a worker has the responsibility -- this is clear from papal teachings -- to discern whether the union is worthy of his affiliation. Leo XIII made this point directly: workers, you may not join the wrong sorts of unions!

And beyond the moral question of what solidarity means in this case, is the subset question of the extent to which solidarity is embodied in the coercions of law. Insofar as the Church has never, to my knowledge, ever affirmed, in such concrete fashion, that "solidarity means workers must--contrary to their own views--acquiesce to unionism," it casts grave doubt on the notion that Church teaching, thus so unspecific, would make it mandatory to have laws impose such a responsibility the Church has never enunciated!

So--why do bishops and priests and others speaking for the Church, take the tack they do?

Well, partly because many of them came up in a different era, or were taught about these things by those who did. Partly because this just isn't that prominent an issue to them; they spend a little time on it, form a view, and move on.

Partly because many of them perceive more affinity with union operatives, and some of their causes, than they do with the less visible advocates of Right to Work. This is partly because of the political tilt of many clerics--though that is changing as a new generation replaces an older one.

Why aren't they better informed? Big Labor has more concrete visibility. The National Right to Work Committee simply cannot match Big Labor for infrastructure; its proponents are everywhere, but not paid full-time tub-thumpers; rather, they are Americans of all walks, all faiths, all political stripes, only some of whom make this their sole, or even top issue. Were the millions of Right to Work members to begin promoting Right to Work to church representatives, the way union operatives have done for years, it might, in time, change. But the Right to Work Committee would be, in my judgment, derelict in trying to make that happen with its limited resources. But it means many in clerical dress are insufficiently informed.

Also, a part of this is ordinary, human fear. Bishops and priests don't welcome (any more than anyone else) conflict with organized groups, or outraged parishioners. This may seem ignoble, but consider: we have plenty of areas where we can take a stand that will draw fire. Some of us avoid drawing any fire; but most of us accept some; we choose our battles. Asking a priest, or anyone, to go out and draw all the fire you can is a lot to ask.

So, I confess, I don't particularly want to receive a visitation from the local "labor council"; I don't welcome inviting their retaliation--not to me, they can do nothing to me--but to the parish, or a cause of which I'm part. Nor do I want to get into an emotional shouting match with a parishioner. I'll do it, when the time seems right. Meanwhile, I have a lot of other things that need to be said from the pulpit, not just this. (And I have talked about this, a couple of times, over the years. Part of the problem is this is just too obscure for most folks. If we ever have a real fight over a Right to Work law in Ohio, check back with me.)

But I am looking forward to discussions on this in "social justice" contexts; and I do what I can in conversations, including here.


MrsDarwin said...

A clear, concise summary of Right to Work for Labor Day. I'll try and send some people your way to read it.

UncleD said...

A good presentation of the whole union question. As a UAW retiree of GM, I can attest to the benefits I enjoy from collective bargaining: my health benefits, my defined pension benefit. I believe that the right to organize has made a significant improvement to our country in working conditions, in preventing the abuse of children in forced labor.
The Church teaches that the job is for man, and not that man is for the job. Union labor stands fairly alone in fighting for the just wage, that which a man needs to support a wife and children. As I see it, many of those who support the Right to Work are not interested in respecting the interests of the worker, but instead are trying to lower their costs and maximize their share of the profits.