State of the Unions

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.

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Robert O'Connell
5 years 10 months ago
To some extent, John's data is in error. The idea that "about a third of all [American] workers belonged to a union" during the mid-twentieth century actually applies only to private sector workers; hardly any workers in the public sector, or employed by religious and other charity-related institutions were unionized before the mid-seventies. Second, while higher wages and benefits associated with union jobs are desirable, the loss of jobs in the private sector, especially in the steel, auto, mining, trucking, and manufacturing industries is not at all desirable. Nor is the history of corruption, most recenly exemplified by the conviction of the SEIU's Tyrone Freeman in Los Angeles. Unfortunately, the more organized labor ties itself to the partisanship of the Democrats, the more we have all suffered.
Jonathan James
5 years 10 months ago
The author is making an invalid assumption that to be pro-union is the same as pro-labor. Unions are less interested in taking care of their members than they are about political power. If you doubt this, look at how they treat their own administrative employees who are often members of a different union. They act just like any company will when faced with a potential strike.
john andrechak
5 years 10 months ago
great column; as far as posts regarding union corruption, these examples pale next to the record of American business, from the tobacco industry, that knowingly peddled cigarettes that they knew are deadly, to Ford that decided not to recall the Pinto, judging it would be cheaper to settle wrongful death cases; I thank God for my union and consider it an honor to pay my dues; the decline of the middle class is directly linked to union busting,as well as unmitigated globalization, and deregulation
5 years 10 months ago
Unions don't exist in a vacuum. Fair employers, either public or private, who value their employees and pay fair wages and good benefits don't need unions. There's a reason why Walmart keeps having unionization issues. Bad management and corporate greed caused unions to rise. As their popularity wanes watch for working conditions, safety, and benefits to also wane.
Bob Baker
5 years 10 months ago
Let's not forget that every pope in the modern era has stated that it is a right of all employees to organize. You hear the bishops mention this every once in a while, but you'll notice they don't allow unionization of their own diocesan workers.


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