In the mid-20th-century United States, about a third of all workers belonged to a union. Today, however, only about 12 percent of American workers are union members. Mass public opinion has taken an anti-union turn. In one recent survey, when asked whether “labor unions” were “necessary to protect the working person,” a third of all Americans, including 39 percent of Independents and 57 percent of Republicans, said no.
But what do you suppose most average working people would say to a nearly 14 percent increase in wages, a 28 percent greater chance of receiving employer-paid health benefits, and a 54 percent greater chance of an employer-paid pension? According to careful empirical research by the Economic Policy Institute, those are the wage premiums and other benefits associated with being a union member.
About 6.1 million Americans lost their jobs between 2009 and 2011. By 2012, about 30 percent of them had taken jobs that paid four-fifths or less than they had been making; 27 percent remained jobless; and 17 percent had given up searching for work.
As the Harvard economist Richard Freeman and others have documented, the ongoing collapse of the American labor movement has figured in the steady rise of economic inequality, whether measured by income or wealth. It has also figured in the stagnation of real median income, uneven growth in productivity gains and the persistence of extreme rates of poverty in many urban communities with majority-minority populations.
An “America without unions,” defined as an America in which fewer than one worker in 20 belongs to a union, would be a disaster for unionized and nonunionized workers alike, for the desperate-for-a-job unemployed and for the all-American ideal of a middle-class democracy anchored by sustainably middle-class families.
An America without unions would also be a constitutional and public law travesty. Given the ongoing spike in anti-labor legislation in many states, by 2032 and the 100th anniversary of the Norris-LaGuardia Act, which gave federal protection to collective bargaining rights, workers’ rights might actually be less well protected by law than they were just after the New Deal.
And an America without unions would violate core Catholic teachings.
Some otherwise estimable Catholic thinkers have claimed or implied that in the Catholic tradition “human capital” is freighted with no more moral significance than nonhuman factors of production and financial capital. But they are far wrong. The church teaches and preaches an unambiguously pro-labor doctrine. That doctrine is explicated not only in the Catechism of the Catholic Church; but also in numerous papal encyclicals, in other Vatican edicts and, here in the United States, in the statements by the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops.
Here, for example, is the preamble to the U.S.C.C.B.’s latest statement on “labor-employment”:
Through the combination of social and economic change, trade union organizations experience greater difficulty in carrying out their task of representing the interests of workers, partly because Governments, for reasons of economic utility, often limit the freedom or the negotiating capacity of labor unions.... The repeated calls issued within the Church’s social doctrine...for the promotion of workers’ associations that can defend their rights must therefore be honored today even more than in the past....
Hearing those words cited as evidence that the church stands firmly with labor, a prominent Catholic thinker asserted (privately) that the statement reflected “only the views of certain bishops.”
Well, it does reflect the views of at least one bishop—the one that sits on the throne of St. Peter in Rome. It is a direct quotation from Pope Benedict XVI’s encyclical “Charity in Truth” (2009). The pope has made numerous additional pro-labor pronouncements since then.
Starting with the 161 Catholics in Congress, I hope that we will heed the call to honor workers’ rights and the “associations that can defend” these rights.