The pace of change runs ever faster, and it is proving ever harder for older nations to keep up. The latest disruption is the Arab Revolution, which swept across North Africa and down the Arabian Gulf. The consequent anxiety over oil supplies has driven prices up, threatening to slow or end economic recovery in the United States and Europe. In the meantime, rapid economic growth and innovation in the emerging giants—China, India and Brazil—has led to a scramble for the rare metals needed to manufacture high-tech equipment. Globalization, moreover, relentlessly advances the creative destruction inherent in the capitalist system, with only the nimblest, most entrepreneurial societies able to profit.
In this white-water turmoil, the U.S. political system has had a particularly hard time adjusting. Our once-vaunted governmental checks and balances make it hard to adjust to rapidly changing conditions and to exploit new opportunities. Whether it is responding to climate change, concluding free trade agreements or rebuilding deteriorating infrastructure, the U.S. system lacks the institutional will to do what needs to be done. Multinational corporations and states that take a long view, like China, are able to pursue long-term goals. In the United States, by contrast, to make needed short-term savings and long-term adjustments, several states are focused on gutting public service unions.
The attack on unions is just the latest trend in a hollowing out of America. Science, for example, ceases to be an adventure that engages the nation. With the decommissioning of the last space shuttle, the United States will become dependent on the Russians to fly American astronauts into space. The former Number One finds itself fallen to the middle or near the bottom in the ranking of industrial nations by the academic skills of its students. The lists of food stamp recipients and Medicaid patients grow. Financiers receive bonuses because their contracts demand them, while workers have their contracts voided.
In states like Wisconsin, Indiana and Ohio, unions are whipping boys for politicians. There was a time when unions had become an impediment to economic growth, but for more than a generation now they have been sustaining businesses and preventing government defaults through their givebacks. The revival of General Motors, for example, was made possible in part by concessions made by the United Auto Workers. Unions, like our other institutions, will have to adjust continually to the changing dynamics of the world economy. But unions should not be made to bear costs of transition alone. Adjustment to evolving conditions must be just across society.
A flourishing economy is the foundation of the common good in which all have a right to a fair share. The principle of participation applies especially to labor. Pope John Paul II contended that “the priority of labor” is the cornerstone of economic justice, for it is human labor and ingenuity that add value to mere natural products. Capital itself is a product of labor. Accordingly, the pope argued, working people deserve a share in the profit of their industry. But in an interest-based world, as Reinhold Niebuhr observed, unions provide the power required to shape economic arrangements that are fair and just for workers. While unions, like businesses and governments, have sometimes abused that power, they are nonetheless necessary for securing a just society. Collective bargaining is the mechanism by which unions advance and defend worker interests.
Today unions are needed more than at any time since the Great Depression. As their power has been attenuated, so have the conditions of American workers. Productivity is up, but income has declined; and employees work longer hours. According to the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development, before the present recession Americans worked 1,777 hours per year on average, whereas their prosperous, better protected German counterparts worked only 1,362, a difference of more than 400 hours, nearly ten 40-hour workweeks.
It is encouraging that some governors, rejecting the anti-union gambit, are attempting to build a future in cooperation with unions that embraces shared sacrifice and public investment. Montana’s governor, Brian Schweitzer, Maryland’s Martin O’Malley and Connecticut’s Daniel P. Malloy, among others, are partnering with unions to find ways to share the pain of austerity as they protect the vulnerable. Within a few years it will be clear whether the common-good approach to government or the anti-union, business-only approach advances the bottom line better. But, in the case of the let’s-work-together states, the ends will have already been achieved in the means. The participation of all in the economy will have been served: workers, the elderly, children, the poor and the vulnerable will benefit. Adjustments will have been achieved with a modicum of justice.