Acton Institute Powerblog

Card Check and CST

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When Sen. Arlen Specter announced last week that he opposed the Employee Free Choice Act (legislation permitting union organizing by card check rather than secret ballot), it appeared to diminish chances of the bill’s passage for the time being.

But the idea will no doubt be back, so it might be worthwhile to reflect for a moment on how this particular proposal comports with Catholic social teaching (CST). Opponents of card check argue that it will open workers to union pressure tactics. Advocates argue that employers already use pressure tactics and card check makes it easier for unions to form, which is in the best interest of the workers. (See both sides articulated in this LA Times debate.)

The proposal involves other issues as well, but I think it is correct to focus on the question of coercion. In the social encyclical tradition, beginning with Leo XIII in Rerum Novarum (1891), the popes speak positively about labor unions but not unequivocally so. They praise unions insofar as they are ordered to the common good, do not act contrary to the faith (e.g., by disseminating atheist or anti-Catholic opinions), and serve the genuine welfare of workers.

Intrinsic to this papal understanding of beneficial unionism is the right of free association. The union, in this understanding, is simply one of many associations in which people participate in pursuit of individual goods and in service of the common good. If there is coercion—for or against union organizing—then the moral validity of the labor system is compromised.

The question, then, is whether card check legislation would enhance or detract from the goal of free association of workers. It is hard to see how it would enhance it. James Sherk has documented instances of coercion where card check has been in place. In response, advocates point to instances of dubious employer tactics on the other side.

I’m sure that in unionization disputes there are all sorts of pressures brought to bear on all sides. Some degree of pressure will be unavoidable—it is a heated issue about which people who spend many hours a day, every day, with each other differ. The goal, however, should be to reduce the opportunities for outright coercion, not to increase them. I cannot see, then, how the opportunity to sign a union card in front of one’s peers is an improvement over a ballot that is secret.

CST supports the formation of voluntary associations, including labor unions. Card check is a step away from rather than toward the ideal of an economy composed of men and women acting freely and without compulsion.

For a broader treatment of related matters, see CSTS volume 5, Charles Baird’s Liberating Labor.

Kevin Schmiesing Kevin Schmiesing, Ph.D., is a research fellow for the research department at the Acton Institute. He is a frequent writer on Catholic social thought and economics, is the author of American Catholic Intellectuals, 1895-1955 (Edwin Mellen Press, 2002) and is most recently the author of Within the Market Strife: American Catholic Economic Thought from Rerum Novarum to Vatican II (Lexington Books, 2004). Dr. Schmiesing holds a Ph.D. in American history from the University of Pennsylvania, and a B.A. in history from Franciscan University ofSteubenville. Author of Within the Market Strife and American Catholic Intellectuals, 1895—1955 (2002), he serves as Book Review Editor for the Journal of Markets & Morality. He is also executive director of


  • Kevin- Your pursuit of academic knowledge and your interest in theological insight on the subject of labor law is encouraging. However it is quite clear that your analysis lacks the perspective of low income workers who actually experience oppressive working conditions. Large American companies routinely hire consulting firms to run manipulative union busting campaigns with the sole purpose of dissuading workers from freely associating. These firms use pressure tactics to intimidate and in many instances illegally terminate workers involved in organizing efforts. How does this not affect your definition of coercion?

  • Kevin

    James, Thank you for your engagement of my reflections.

    As I stated explicitly in my post, I am opposed to coercion—”for or against” unionization. More specifically, it’s not clear that the consulting firms you object to are actually coercive. You use the terms “manipulative” and “dissuade,” one of which has pejorative connotations and one of which does not. There’s nothing wrong with a company trying to persuade its workers not to join a union, if the company deems it in the best interest of the firm to do so, just as there’s nothing wrong with union organizers trying to persuade workers to form or join a union. I think our goal should be an environment in which workers feel free to associate or not as they determine according to whatever criteria they believe are important. I don’t see how card check fosters that environment, but I’m willing to listen to arguments in its favor.

    As for the illegal termination of workers, I hope nothing I wrote implied that I would be in favor of such actions. If managers or executives are indeed acting illegally, they should be prosecuted, period.