Just Adjustments

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.

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8 years 10 months ago
AMEN.  Thank you so very much for this editorial.  I hope millions will read it.  It is so easy to bust and escape goat public workers, especially teachers, than to be serious and creative about finding and working out solutions to problems.  If we didn't have our teacher union, my salary would still be half of a male teacher's!!!
James Collins
8 years 10 months ago
The UAW did make concessions to GM just before the bankruptcy. They had resisted for decades and the resultant uncompetitiveness cost hundreds of thousands of lost jobs and saw the union become much smaller. In Michigan the public employee unions and Democratic governor Granholm executed a phony election which gave the union bargaining rights for people caring for the disabled and mentally challenged. Then the governor agreed to take union dues out of the welfare checks which the state sent to the caregivers. Thus mothers caring for a seriously challenged child lost some of the money they needed to support that child. The union bosses then used that dues money to expand their political power.

You admit that unions do abuse their power. That surprises me since I never heard you identify and expose those instances. If you were more even handed  in condemning those abuses as well as the good things they do then you might be given more credibility.
Frederick Grewen
8 years 10 months ago

Your articlde could have been written by Michael Moore or Al Gore. 

In Wisconsin, a union member has been unable to leave the union and discontinue his or her dues without being fired.  The new law will allow workers to work for the state as a non union member working along side union members. Among many of the current public service union members there is a very strong objection to their dues being applied to liberal, progressive causes by UNION LEADERSHIP.

Public union contracts are very diferent than those with private sector companies.  When sympathetic politians and union leaders put together these benefit packages deals, they are made with no input from the taxpayers who foot the bill. 

The authors of this article are oblivious to the finacial disaster this country are facing. 
As a Jesuit educated Catholic, I'm very concerned about the articles in the name of Catholisism that I read on this site. 

TM Lutas
8 years 10 months ago
This editorial is not worthy of the institution. The check and balance system is not adopting your preferred policies and so it is the system that is breaking down, not that the people have rejected your political preferences. Your admiration for the more nimble authoritarian style is a bit creepy. Ok, a lot creepy. 

As for unions, they are one possible solution to the problem of maintaining the dignity of labor. They are a high cost, systemic rigidity inducing solution. There are others. If these other solutions serve the dignity of the worker better, they should be adopted and unions abandoned, put next to our society's historical curiosities, like buggy whips. To sentimentally stick with unions when workers themselves seem to be rejecting them as unsuited to their needs is a paternalistic "we know better" attitude that is quite possibly in error and, sadly, creates a net reduction in the dignity of labor. 

The supply of productive labor has massively increased. The PRC is no longer holding its people in horribly counterproductive economic bondage. India's bureaucratic state is no longer suffocating India's labor force quite so badly, smaller nations all over the world have liberated their populations from the nasty bondage of subsistence agriculture. All of these liberated workers must find work and until these massive supply shocks are absorbed, the price that labor commands will have a strong downdraft. This downdraft is a problem, but it is a joyous problem, the problem of reintegrating whole nations of recently freed workers. 

We will get past this challenge and labor wage rates shall recover. They will recover more quickly the more entrepreneurial new entrants enter the market and create more jobs. Unfortunately the modern regulatory state does not help. Neither do unions. Both are regularly supported by this publications editorial board. You really should rethink that.
Robert O'Connell
8 years 10 months ago
By what criteria do you conclude that union "power has been attenuated"?  More significantly, when the President, the National Labor Relations Board and so many members of the academic, media & political institutions of our society favor unions are you sure your observation is valid?

Some entity antagonistic to the National Education Association is running ads in the Chicago television market quoting an NEA official bragging about that union's power, and emphasizing that the NEA's power arises out of the fact that it has 3.2 million people willing to pay "hundreds of millions of dollars in due" to support the union.  What other special interest has such power?

Ironically, unions do not attract new members.  The private sector workforce is so overwlmingly non-union that organized labor opposes secret ballot elections. 

The public sector workforce favors unions far more than the private sector, - but why?  And even though a large percentage of public sector workers are union represented, nowhere close to a majority are members.   Nonetheless, unions have enough power to negotiate health insurance and retirement benefits that cost more than all other employers - with the exception of Congress and a host of public sector managers. 

Union power seems to have brought government to a halt in Wisconsin.  Are you suggesting that Richard Trumka is a victim?
John Nemia
8 years 10 months ago

There are two types of unions, public service unions and private sector. Regarding the private sector unions, is part of the cost of product they produce which then has to marketed to a consumer, which is not restricted to a geographafic aera. Who is subject to various goverment regulations. Prvivate sector has  shareholders that it must answer to,  how have invested their capital. So for that entpersise to succeed it must make a profit. If there costs go beyond their ability make  a profit. They have but two choices increase prices, to increase revenue. But this may reduce markerting ability. So they must reduce cost, 
The public sector doesn't report to anyone except the local goverment, which only concern is being reelected. They don't produce anything. Local goverment only collect revenue on the back of taxpyers. Taxpayers have no say in the cost goverment, but when do have, and they say enough is enough. The public unions, tell the goverment get the money from the taxpayers. 
Private unions givebacks are for their own survival. Public unions belive that it's the goverment's problem.  

Katherine Lawrence
8 years 10 months ago
I understand this is partly about private vs. public sector unions, but I want to point out another distinction: voluntary versus involuntary union membership. In cities, industries, etc., that enforce union membership, unions create an obscene power. In new orleans, for example, the teachers unions are very much responsible for the lousy education in orleans parish. 

Unions, like religions, should be voluntary.  
David Smith
8 years 10 months ago
Well written essay - comprehensive, balanced, and to the point.  Thanks.

Much of the labor unhappiness we're living through in this country now may be due to a fundamental change in the nature of labor in the developed world.  As machines take over an increasing amount of jobs that require intellectual capital, there will inevitably be increasing unemployment, even though the birth rate has leveled off.  Too many willing and trained workers and too few jobs.

What's been a given for much or all of human history - that individuals will survive only to the extent that they're able to bargain their work for goods or currency - may be changing forever.  If it's no longer possible for a large percentage of willing and trained workers to find work, other mechanisms will have to be developed to keep economies healthy and feed the population.

Under these circumstances, unions will either change radically or be rendered obsolete.
8 years 10 months ago
Governors and other officials are supposed to govern.  This means compromising and communicating with employees and those that represent them.  If the officials are not up to the job, they should resign.

The financial sector and corporations have bought the Congress and, perhaps, the President as well.  Unions represent one of the last bulwarks against absolute corporate rule. 

Service and retail businesses, like large manufacturers, could care less where their products are made and if Americans have jobs.  Their goal is to make a profit.  Unions and ordinary people have been too trusting.  Unless we rid the nation of the new Republican selfishness, there isn't much hope to reestablish the United States as a nation and as a balanced economy.

At some point, we must realize that we must work together, as they do in Europe, to safeguard the economy.  People without jobs cannot purchase anything.  At that point, everyone, including all businesses, will be losers too.
Jerome Riggs
8 years 10 months ago

 I am pleased that the majority of comments seem to not agree with this editorial. Aftrer 16 years of a Catholic education, and 8 being Jesuit, it deeply concerns me that the editorial board has such a shallow view of what is happening today in the US.

I am retired now, but spent 3 years in the US Army, 15 years with a large corporation, and 25 years in a construction business I established in California. At one time I had up to 30 plus employees, all dedicated, honest, and hard working. My experience with both the corporate culture and my own employees was one of working with people who respected the product they had and the customers they served.

During my years in business, I had many opportunities to interface with government entities, and public employess. I must admit, I did not experience the same dedication to hard work and customer service from government workers as I did in private industry. This was particularly evident when attempting to obtain building permits from the numerous government agencies.

On several jobs, we were required to pay what is called "the prevailing wage", because it was a government funded job. To my thinking, this was a great immoral justice to our taxpayers, since what they referred to as "prevailing wage", was a fictitious number forced upon us by unions, far exceeding what was required to obtain good, hard working people.

While I found the work ethic in private business to be excellent, I found the opposite to be true in government agencies. I still find that to be true.

Today we have a serious disconnect between the salaries and benefits paid to unionized government workers and those in the private sector. Unfortunately, we have taken away the freedom of many workers in this country through forced union membership and government regulations. Have you ever seen a government agency that was proud to come in "under budget"? I venture to say if you are honest that the answer is "Never". This is not the case with private enterprise. Government agencies will always exceed their budget if possilble and it will continue to grow. However, the end result is not always an improvement. Our monopolized public education system is a good example.

The key to all of this is "freedom" in the market. Not some government beaurocrat decreeing what is needed for "social justice". With that you get tyranny and socialist governments such as we have in communist countries and dictatorships.

Donna Altepeter
8 years 10 months ago

As a Roman Catholic and also an Jesuit educated professional, I appreciate the article and its' balance. I am not a union member but watch with fear the far reaching approach of the wisconsin govenor and legislature. Jerome, I would challenge your perspective with my own. I have worked in both private and public sector (and not as a union member in either) and I have worked hard and in a dedicated manner, as have others, in both jobs; I have seen lazy and unappreciative people in both sectors. The environments did not change who I was as a worker. The assumption in your argument is that if "bargaining" allows for people to be lazy, and services to overcharge and cheat. Overall, people will be lazy and that unions promote this.  I would just say that there are many adults that are governed internally, by a strong work ethic and personal morals. They do not need to be stripped of their rights to function well in a work setting. For all those who may be "lazy" that unions protect, they do far more good in protecting our labor force and those who receive their services. You may have "interfaced" with people in public sector but I would challenge you to become a public sector worker and see how quickly the hardworking person you are would detoriate into something less. I would venture to say, that would not be true for you. If not true for you, perhaps it is not true for others?

Mike Van Cleve
8 years 10 months ago
I am somewhat surprized at the shock of some cemmenters on the article at how the Catholic Church could support unions. It should be noted that the Wisconsin bishops support the public servicesw union . It should also be noted that for the last 100+years beginning with Rerum Novarum the Church has supported the rights of workers to organize.  This does not mean that unions are without fault sure they are but it does mean that they have a place in the discussion
Mike Simon
8 years 10 months ago

Regarding Unions, it is necessary to deferentiate between unions in private enterprise and unions of public employees. Private unions must negotiate with the owners of the company or their representatives. Public unions take the dues paid by their members, donate to polititions and get them elected to office, and then negotiate with these same polititions that recognize  they depend on these union dues for their re-election. Not fair negotiations to the tax paying public.

Chris Cunningham
8 years 10 months ago
There are hundreds of millions of uneducated umeployed workers in China, especially Western China. I presume that all of the people here believe in equality and not that Americans are better than Chinese. Personally I would like these Chinese people to be able to hear about the word of God.
How about America makes an example to the world by allowing free movement of people between China and the U.S.
Personally I feel that common acceptance of this barrier to free movement of people is something akin to the acceptance of slavery a few centuries ago, and will be seen as this in the future.
I would like to see free movement of people for travel and work between all countires in the world.
This is relevat to your Union question becuase as Donald Trump is constantly saying he buys everything from China these days, bypassing the unions.
There needs to be a global solution to this issue.
Geoffrey O'Connell
8 years 10 months ago
This is an excellent article and I  agree. These Politicans should wake up realize how wrong they are.
Vince Killoran
8 years 10 months ago
A well-written and reasoned essay.

The problem is not that unionized workers are too well paid or have too many benefits-or that they have too many basic rights in the workplace.  The problem is that the non-unionized workforce does not have enough of these basic and just things.
John Walton
8 years 10 months ago
Lost in all this - perhaps the finest hour for Unions in this century was Lech Walesa and Solidarity standing up for the dignity of the individual...and Lane Kirkland should get some of the credit since he worked the back channels in support.
David Smith
8 years 10 months ago
Vince writes (#16):

"The problem is not that unionized workers are too well paid or have too many benefits-or that they have too many basic rights in the workplace.  The problem is that the non-unionized workforce does not have enough of these basic and just things.'

Indeed.  But sometimes it seems that unions, as they exist, have been left in the dust of history, that they've not evolved with the times.  Perhaps what would be effective now is some very different sort of employee organization.  Could it be that unions, unable or unwilling to evolve, are in effect preventing something better, something much more effective, from developing?
C Walter Mattingly
8 years 10 months ago
Both democrats and republicans agree that a main cause of the disappointing economic growth of America's middle class is our public school system, which despite being at or near the top in dollars spent per student for decades now ranks in the bottom quartile of the 30 major industrial countries in combined math and science achievement. Not coincidentally, this is the one area of the American economy that has been absolutely dominated by union control for 2 generations. Whether or not such union policies as having the fewest school days and hours of instruction of any of these 30 nations, protecting the mediocre teacher who has seniority at the expense of the good teacher who doesn't in cutbacks, doing everything possible for decades to avoid having performance evaluations  impact salaries or retention policies, etc, have contributed to this problem I leave to the collective judgment of our readers.
It is true that nonunion workers don't have a special interest group representing them to force above market salaries and benefits their way. But they see the long-term results of such actions in the private marketplace in the results GM, Chrysler, US Steel, etc have had on jobs, and they consider bankruptcy not in their best interest. While citizens can avoid the full impact of this kind of union-bloated manipulation of costs in the private market place-they buy a Honda instead of a Chevy-in the public marketplace they can't avoid the problem. The taxpayer is stuck with the bill. And that leads to another reason non-union workers are not as prosperous as they might be-they have to pay the taxes and interest expenses on deficits and the lost future employment opportunities the public unions and their favored elected representatives have sprung on all the citizen taxpayers through their cozy and profitable (for them) relationship.
James Sheehan
8 years 10 months ago
Today with Citizen's United in force, the unions are among the few who provide voice and balance in our political discourse.  
Unions provide rights and benefits in the public sector to employees who could lose their jobs at every election.   In order for the economy to run efficiently, there needs to be strong employment with good wages in both the private and public sector.  People who chose to work in the public sector realize that they will not be rich but will get certain benefits and perks in their job.  We all choose career paths based on out needs and values.  Public employees are no exception.   They are just as dedicated as their private sector peers.  There is no need to vilify them.  I am a non-union member but I support unions and their right to collective bargaining.  
Frank Gibbons
8 years 10 months ago

How about Brennan O'Donnell's trying to suppress union activity at Manhattan?  O'Donnell held administrative posts at Jesuit Colleges (Loyola and Fordham).  Apparently what's good for the world (the right to organize) doesn't apply to those whose motto is "Men and Women for Others".  When it comes to threatening the pocket books of Vatican II Catholics, unions are suddenly an anathema. O'Donnell used the "Spirit of Vatican II" defense when the National Labor Relations Board said that Manhattan waasn't a Catholic insitution. 

David Smith
8 years 10 months ago
Jim writes (#21):

"Unions provide rights and benefits in the public sector to employees who could lose their jobs at every election."

Civil-service laws were supposed to take care of that problem, not unions.
Elaine Tannesen
8 years 10 months ago

Union busting is just one more step in the corporate power grab.  Thanks in part to Citizens United, we are seeing unleashed the mammoth funds of extremely wealthy citizens and corporations to promote their every –man- for- himself style of capitalism and  government.  The power of unions compared to their power is pretty minimal.  States are using their shortage of funds, primarily caused by the Wall Street orchestrated recession, as an excuse to go after unions.  Employee pension funds are bankrupting our states they claim.  Public sector workers are accused of unfair wages and benefits because of their unions.  Actually, two of every three public sector workers are not unionized.  As for the terrible drain on the economy, according to the National Association of State Retrement Administrators, public pensions amount to on the average 2.9, yes, 2.9 percent of state spending.  So what is going on here?  Business as usual for right wing politicians, the shift of money, power, and dignity from  the middle class to the very wealthy. Follow the money.  Be informed about the philosophy behind this shift, a philosophy that is the very antithesis of love of neighbor.

Carol DeChant
8 years 10 months ago
I urge anyone interested in this topic to see the film "Waiting for Superman" and then for Catholics and Democrats to rethink our historic one-sided support of unions. Times have changed; the workplace has changed; and unions have changed in this history. Now, public school children are often cheated by poor teachers whose unions protect their jobs with no regard to their attitude or performance. No one in this fight is focused on the needs of the children.  It is also time to relook at who the bad guys are: casting them as corporate CEOs is misleading. Far more union members today are government (rather than corporate) employees.


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