Posts tagged with: labor

Blog author: jballor
posted by on Monday, September 20, 2010

Last week’s Acton Commentary and blog post focused on my claims about “crony unionism” and how the intimate relationship between Big Labor and Big Government corrupt both.

Here’s another instance of the kinds of gross conflicts of interest produced by this relationship:


It’s hard to see this as anything but partisan pandering on the part of the largest public sector union, the American Federation of State, County, and Municipal Employees (AFSCME).

Meanwhile, the Washington Post asks, “Was politics behind the government’s decision to preserve the UAW’s pensions?” (HT: Instapundit).

Despite rumors to the contrary, the demise of the influence and legacy of Big Labor have been greatly exaggerated.

In this week’s Acton Commentary, I take a look at the prospects of “right-to-work” legislation in Michigan, “A Lesson from Michigan: Time to End Crony Unionism.”

One of the things that disturbs me the most about what I call “crony unionism” is the hand-in-glove relationship between the labor unions and big government. We have the same kind of special pleading and rent seeking in this system as we do in crony capitalism, but the labor unions enjoy such special protection that there isn’t even a hint of democratic competition.

The unions get windfalls from government subsidy and turn around and actively campaign for the expansion of government. The partisan character of some of the ad campaigns funded by labor unions are particularly egregious. I’ve recently seen a labor-funded ad running in Michigan that demonizes Republicans and lauds Democrats, and FactCheck.org ran a report earlier this month about attack ads from the American Federation of State, County, and Municipal Employees.

One of the noteworthy thing about unions in America is that the share of union members are increasingly coming from the public sector rather than the private sector. This adds an additional layer of concern to the larger problem of crony unionism. We in effect get government employees using government funds to campaign for the expansion of government.

Labor unions form a vital part of civil society, but when they are turned into arms of the government, their purpose is perverted and corrupted. Professor Charles W. Baird examines the merits of free labor in his Acton monograph, Liberating Labor: Liberating Labor: A Christian Economist’s Case for Voluntary Unionism.

Even the idea of debating whether unions should enjoy monopolistic privileges in a state like Michigan, dominated by organized labor interests for so long, is refreshing. And I think it might just be instructive about the kinds of alternative and innovative proposals that will have traction at the polls this November.

One of this week’s contributions to Acton Commentary, in honor of the upcoming American Labor Day holiday is titled, “Work and the Two Great Love Commandments.”

In this piece I focus on how we can view work as a means to express our love for our neighbor and for God. I say a bit about what work does for us as individuals as well.

There’s a great deal that could be said on this very important topic. Work is a huge area of our lives. Lester DeKoster, whom I refer to in the commentary, goes so far as to call work the “basic form of stewardship.” (You can find out more about DeKoster’s view of work in his little book of the same name, Work: The Meaning of Your Life—A Christian Perspective.)

He has another important perspective on work related to its formation of our souls and thereby the formation of civilization.

He writes, along with Gerard Berghoef,

While the object of work is destined to perish, the soul formed by daily decision to do work carries over into eternity…. This perspective on work, as a maturing of the soul, liberates the believer from undue concern over the monotony of the assembly line, the threat of technology, or the reduction of the worker to but an easily replaceable cog in the industrial machine. One’s job may be done by another. But each doer is himself unique, and what carries over beyond life and time is not the work but the worker. What doing the job does for each of us is not repeated in anyone else. What the exercise of will, of tenacity, of courage, of foresight, of triumph over temptations to get by, does for you is uniquely your own. One worker may replace another on the assembly line, but what each worker carries away from meeting the challenge of doing the day’s shift will ever be his own. The lasting and creative consequence of daily work happens to be the worker. God so arranges that civilization grows out of the same effort that develops the soul.

Tomorrow I’ll have more to say about work and civilization.

My commentary this week touches on the spiritual and cultural significance of the largest U.S. oil spill in history. I was a resident of the Mississippi Gulf Coast for 11 and a half years. I worked in the Gulfport district office of U.S. Congressman Gene Taylor (D-Miss) before leaving for seminary. I was a Katrina evacuee and returned to see unbelievable decimation. It reminded me of the pictures of Hiroshima in textbooks after the dropping of the nuclear bomb. I always think it is fascinating when I hear people observe the Gulf Coast on the news after a tragedy and say how the people should just move. I wonder where they would go when the water is such an integral part of their subsistence and heritage? The people on the Gulf have much more culturally in common with individuals on the Gulf in neighboring states than they do with those living inland in their own state. Louisiana, especially, has one one of the most uniquely diverse cultures in this country. A key theme in my piece is that BP can compensate them economically, but there is an important cultural and spiritual aspect to their labor that is above financial compensation. The text of my piece is also printed below:

Spiritual Labor and the Big Spill

by Ray Nothstine

Many Americans are proud of where they come from; this is no less true of the people of the Gulf Coast. Human interest stories have gripped viewers and readers following the news about the BP oil spill, which often highlights the locals’ pride in their roots. Sal Sunseri, the owner of P&J Oysters in New Orleans says it well: “The history and culture of the seafood industry in Louisiana is part of the fabric of who we are. The world should not take this lightly.”

Sunseri brings to life an important point about the spiritual and cultural aspect of work that is especially rich on the Gulf Coast. Work in a free economy is an expression of our creativity, virtue, and response to a calling. Christian authors Gerard Berghoef and Lester DeKoster note that “God so arranges work that it develops the soul.”

BP is airing a commercial in which it vows to compensate fishermen and others for the loss of income until the cleanup is completed. This is a good start. But it also serves as a reminder that earnings are secondary to fishermen whose very labor is the preservation of heritage. It is not uncommon to hear fishing crews speaking Cajun French off the coast and in the bayous and marshes of Louisiana. Cajun French, an endangered language, was at one time banned in Louisiana schools. The spill is another threat to communities and a way of life for generations of a proud and sometimes marginalized people.

Vietnamese shrimpers, too, proudly work these waters, many of them refugees from communist aggression. They flourish at shrimping, a trade that generations of families practiced in Vietnam. The Vietnamese were among the first communities to rebuild their lives after Hurricane Katrina, often not waiting for government aid. The Washington Post, in a story on the Vietnamese community, echoed this fact and explained how the spill was especially tragic as a resilient community was forced to await assistance.

BP would be wise to continue to hire as many local crews as possible for cleaning up this disaster. Locals have an extra incentive to assist in a thorough effort since they are most tied to the water. BP needs to be concerned not only with repairing its brand; the company has a clear moral obligation to follow promises with action.

The oil industry in the Gulf Coast accounts for almost a third of all U.S. oil production. The oil company’s contribution to the nation’s energy supply is invaluable, but they have been fighting public relations battles for years. Seen largely as a benefit to the community before the spill, they are now being battered by doubts from many in the region who repeat a common line: “We have made a deal with the devil.”

But many residents and local leaders understand that the oil industry is essential to Louisiana’s economic well being. The governor and legislators have fought a bipartisan battle to preserve jobs while the federal government seeks a moratorium on offshore deep-water drilling.

Many in Mississippi and Louisiana are also understandably weary of an often unresponsive federal bureaucracy. United States Congressman Gene Taylor (D-Miss), who represents the seacoast, said of the federal response, “I’m having Katrina flashbacks,” and called the current administration’s efforts “incompetent.” In a particularly harsh quip Florida Senator George Lemieux (R-Fla) added: “It’s not just oil that’s washing ashore Mr. President, it’s failure.” Asked about the biggest frustration with the federal response, Governor Bobby Jindal (R-La) on day 73 of the spill lamented, “There’s just no sense of urgency.”

There is dismay that a nation that once landed men on the moon, liberated nations, and fed and rebuilt its enemies has few answers: the “yes we can” mantra has not materialized for the Gulf. Out of the darkened waters, there is an opening for an oil company to do the right thing and repair trust with an understandably outraged populace.

The men and women of the Gulf Coast who take to the water to practice their trade deserve the opportunity to flourish in the vast wonder of creation. The many Christians among them are keenly aware of the passage from John 21, when the resurrected Christ from afar tells the disciples to cast their net on the right side of the boat and they are rewarded in abundance. The passage is a reminder that Christ has an intimate knowledge of and concern for even the creatures under the sea. It is a source of hope that the cooperation of private enterprise, government, and local ingenuity can bring healing and the rejuvenation of a treasured way of life.

The current issue of Touchstone magazine features an impressive cover essay by Douglas Farrow, Professor of Christian Thought at McGill University in Montreal, Quebec. In “The Audacity of the State,” Farrow uses the biblical Ichabod motif to examine the crumbling pillars of the family and church, which when properly respected form critical foundations for a flourishing society.

In their place, writes Farrow, is the “savior state,” which “presents itself as the people’s guardian, as the guarantor of the citizen’s well-being. The savior state is the paternal state, which not only sees to the security of its territory and the enforcement of its laws but also promises to feed, clothe, house, educate, monitor, medicate, and in general to care for its people.” As Lord Acton said, “There are many things the government can’t do – many good purposes it must renounce. It must leave them to the enterprise of others. It cannot feed the people. It cannot enrich the people. It cannot teach the people. It cannot convert the people.”

In a piece as far-ranging and challenging as this, there are bound to be some minor points with which to quibble. For instance, Farrow’s characterization of the role of Erastianism in the overarching narrative seems to be a bit of a caricature, or at least not contextually sensitive. But in any case, there is one larger lacuna in Farrow’s otherwise admirable, impressive, and worthwhile essay, a piece which has far too many worthwhile sections and quotes from which to pull an adequate nosegay. Farrow’s piece must be read in its entirety. (And while you are there, sign up to receive Touchstone.)

But in discussing the elements of civil society, those institutions other than the state which provide it with limits and humble its would-be soteriological ambitions, Farrow considers only the church and the family, “the two most prominent pillars of political freedom, the pillars that have always provided for a roof or shield over the individual and his conscience.”

To be sure, there is some historical basis for considering only these three (church, state, family). These are, after all, the so-called “three estates,” orders, or institutions of classical Christian social thought. These estates have in some form or another functioned vibrantly in the discussion of Christian social thought from Luther’s own time to the present. Richard Baxter (Weber’s proclaimed paragon of the Protestant ethic), for instance, had a threefold distinction beyond personal ethics: economics (referring in the older sense to family), ecclesiastics, and politics.

But in speaking of the tyrannical habitus of the state, at least passing reference must be made to what Dietrich Bonhoeffer identified as the fourth institution: the realm of work, business, culture. It is understandable why Farrow might not pay much attention to this multifaceted pillar of civil society, especially since that pillar has largely been ground to a nub in the course of the twentieth century. But state control and invasion of this sector of social life is as far-reaching, perhaps more so, as it has been with the state’s involvement in the church and family.

The church and the family certainly have their defenders in the public square, although they are too few and fragmentary, as Farrow rightly laments. But who will speak against the audacity of the state for the realm of labor, work, and cultivation? These need their defenders, too, and that in one sense is precisely what we aim do here at the Acton Institute.

In what deserves to be considered a modern classic, Lester DeKoster writes on the relationship between work and stewardship. These reflections from God’s Yardstick ought to be remembered this Labor Day:

The basic form of stewardship is daily work. No matter what that work may be. No matter if you have never before looked upon your job as other than a drudge, a bore, a fearful trial. Know that the harder it is for you to face each working day, the more you will to persevere schools the soul.

Here is a sense of work as soul-forming that anticipates the contemporary Shop Class as Soulcraft discussion.

But beyond the formation of the individual worker’s soul, the order of work has consequences for the larger society.

Work knits the fabric of civilization. We take for granted all the possibilities which work alone provides. And we become aware of how work sustains the order which makes life possible when that order is rent by lightning flashes of riot or war, and the necessities which work normally provides become difficult to come by.

Those record numbers of people who are unemployed on this Labor Day in 2009 certainly need no reminders about the blessings that work offer.

DeKoster also provides needed perspective about what we can and cannot accomplish in this life, and how what we do has eternal consequences.

While the object of work is destined to perish, the soul formed by daily decision to do work carries over into eternity…. This perspective on work, as a maturing of the soul, liberates the believer from undue concern over the monotony of the assembly line, the threat of technology, or the reduction of the worker to but an easily replaceable cog in the industrial machine. One’s job may be done by another. But each doer is himself unique, and what carries over beyond life and time is not the work but the worker. What doing the job does for each of us is not repeated in anyone else. What the exercise of will, of tenacity, of courage, of foresight, of triumph over temptations to get by, does for you is uniquely your own. One worker may replace another on the assembly line, but what each worker carries away from meeting the challenge of doing the day’s shift will ever be his own. The lasting and creative consequence of daily work happens to be the worker. God so arranges that civilization grows out of the same effort that develops the soul.

This morning, the New York Times reported that a broad bipartisan effort of senators convinced Democratic leadership to drop provisions in the Employee Free Choice Act (EFCA) that would have weakened the right of workers to hold secret ballot elections to determine whether or not they would unionize.

EFCA had become known by many of its opponents as the “card check bill” because of its central proposal: if over half of workers at a firm signed cards authorizing a union to represent them, then there would be no federally-supervised election. An election would only happen if over a third of the workers specifically requested it before the card check benchmark was reached.

It is important to look at the different themes of Catholic social teaching regarding labor unions in order to understand the immorality of this suggestion. Pope Leo XIII’s social encyclical Rerum Novarum asserted the rights of workers to form associations in the late 19th century, saying that “to enter into a ‘society’ of this kind is the natural right of man.” Centesimus Annus, a social encyclical from Pope John Paul II, reiterated that the right to unionize exists “because the right of association is a natural right of the human being, which therefore precedes his or her incorporation into political society.” It is the right of free association that gives workers the right to unionize.

Free association among workers cannot be respected under card check schemes. EFCA had the potential to force millions of workers into unions that they did not want. Unions may be correct to argue that some businesses intimidate their workers into opposing collective bargaining, but the unions are guilty of intimidation, too. Unions can also have a direct impact on politics, too, by donating member dues to campaigns and using staff as campaign volunteers. Unions are also exempt from anti-monopoly laws, which allow them to exert far greater influence on the market than any business can.

Actions like these put many labor unions out of touch with Catholic social teaching. Pope Leo XIII warned that unions could seek to abuse their civil power by using it to harm workers and gain excessive power: “There is a good deal of evidence in favor of the opinion that many of these societies are in the hands of secret leaders, and are managed on principles ill-according with Christianity and the public well-being; and that they do their utmost to get within their grasp the whole field of labor, and force working men either to join them or to starve.” It is not unions in and of themselves that Catholic social doctrine supports; it is the right to join one if a worker so desires that is natural and good.

Workers have the right to join labor unions, and many find that it is in their best interests to do so. Many others disagree. Opposition to unionization is not just found in corporate boardrooms. The majority of American workers do not want to unionize. Some do not want their dues going to interests that they oppose. Others want to negotiate with their bosses directly over the compensation they receive. Still others do not want unions to hamper the competitiveness of their employers, as has happened in Detroit in recent years. Only secret ballot elections can determine whether or not workers find unions to be a worthwhile endeavor, no matter how much unions may protest that they do not get exclusive access to workers in order to make their points.

Preserving the right to secret ballot elections is the best way to ensure that all workers have the right to associate according to their own desires. Senators Blanche Lincoln, Mark Pryor, Tom Harkin, and their colleagues should be commended for honoring what Pope Benedict XVI, writing in the social encyclical Caritas in Veritate, calls the “valid distinction between the respective roles and functions of trade unions and politics” that “allows unions to identify civil society as the proper setting for their necessary activity of defending and promoting labor.”

Clint Eastwood’s 2008 project Gran Torino has recently been released on DVD, and what a delight it is. Eastwood plays Walt Kowalski, a Korean War vet and retired auto worker whose wife has just passed away.

I was unable to catch the film in theaters, despite my desire to do so. Based in Michigan, Gran Torino was filmed places like Royal Oak, Warren, Grosse Pointe, and Highland Park. As the production notes state, “Though the screenplay was initially set in Minneapolis, Eastwood felt Walt’s past as a 50-year auto worker would resonate most as a resident of ‘Motor City’—Detroit, Michigan.”

It was a wise decision. Everything about Gran Torino rings true, from Walt’s disdain for his priest, whom he calls “an overeducated 27-year-old virgin,” to his way of speaking (he “slings racial slurs like most people use nouns and verbs”), to the local ambiance (including a “ghetto clothesline” in the basement of Walt’s Hmong neighbors). The film’s action revolves around the title character, a 1972 Gran Torino, Walt’s prized possession, a car that he had a hand in building himself. Walt’s bigotry extends most virulently to his neighbors, the Lor family, Hmong immigrants from southeast Asia. One of the boys in the family, Thao, is eventually pressured into joining a neighborhood gang. His first assignment is to steal Walt’s car.

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In yesterday’s Wall Street Journal Europe, Alberto Mingardi of Istituto Bruno Leoni (and long-time Acton friend) lists some of the reforms Italy needs to boost economic growth, which is forecast at a measly 0.6 – 0.8 percent for 2008.

Mingardi advocates a number of tax cuts and a more determined privatization of state assets. Some of these issues are being discussed – timidly – in the current election campaign; Mingardi also focuses on de-regulation and de-bureaucratization, issues heretofore neglected by Italian politicians.

Current labor regulations are “so numerous that no one can even give their precise number. No one can comply with rules they don’t even know about.” Mingardi adds that “it’s safe to say at least half the statutes currently in force should be repealed, as their only effect is to create confusion.”

A recent study shows that it takes on average 696 days to dismiss a worker in Italy compared to only 19 in the Netherlands. Critics of de-regulation would argue that Italian workers are therefore better protected. Wrong. Unemployment is 5 per cent in Holland compared to 6 per cent in Italy.

This may seem counter-intuitive but makes economic sense. If I know it will be impossible to fire an unproductive worker, I will be much less likely to take a chance on hiring any worker I don’t personally know. Hence, the Italian model of “family capitalism” and higher levels of unemployment.

Italian bureaucracy also exacts high costs on business creation. According to the World Bank, the cost of opening a business is 18.7 per cent of per capita income compared to only 0.8 per cent in the United Kingdom and 0.3 per cent in the Republic of Ireland. Moreover, an Italian business spends an average of 360 hours per year filing taxes whereas in neighboring Switzerland 63 hours suffice. (Not surprisingly, Switzerland is the economic envy of Europe.)

Workers also pay for onerous regulations. Everyone in Italy nowadays complains about stagnant wages, these are clearly the result of decreasing productivity caused by bureaucratic disincentives for businesses to invest and grow.

An overwhelming bureaucracy undermines both individual liberty and the public interest. It punishes the creative spirit of the entrepreneur by obstructing investment and innovation, and harms society by killing the potential for growth and employment. The irony is that regulation and bureaucracy are often enacted in the name of social values.

In my three and a half years as a student at Asbury Theological Seminary, I encountered more anti-capitalist rhetoric than I may have experienced in my entire life up to that point. Before Asbury, I attended a state and secular university, Ole Miss, where socialist propaganda was largely out of fashion.

Acton President Rev. Robert Sirico is quoted in a new piece titled, “The Religious Left, Reborn” by Steven Malanga. The article appears in the autumn issue of City Journal. Rev. Sirico notes the influence of unions and left wing clergy on young seminary students:

Younger seminarians may be particularly receptive to such experiences, Seminarians are preaching all the time, and if they don’t have an economic background, it’s easy for them to fall into the fallacy of the Left that our economy is a zero-sum game that demands conflict between business owners and workers.

This influence was especially evident at Asbury, which is an evangelical seminary and originally founded to combat the rise of liberal theology. Some new students at the school began to associate justice with wealth redistribution. This transformation in thinking often occurred after students were required to take a required class Kingdom, Church, and World. In this class, business, profit, entrepreneurs, and chief executive officers were often used as examples of anti-Christian behavior.

The free market was also seen as a system that subjugated labor, and especially third world nations. On occasion in Kingdom, Church, and World, I tried to defend the free market and was rebuked by my professor who told me, “Ray … capitalism is an enlightenment construct and not a Christian value.” Fortunately, this rebuke did not convince me that a command economy or a socialist-Marxist construct was better than the free market.

Another issue raised in the City Journal piece is the use of clergy by labor to advance its agenda. Many people who attend a mainline protestant church in America are very aware of this tactic, especially if they hold a differing opinion. Malanga declares:

The Wayne State University Labor Studies Center’s “activist handbook” advises living-wage campaigns always to put religious leaders out front. “As soon as you have clergy arguing for something called a ‘living wage,’ you’ve lost the battle if you’re representing businesses.

Malanga does an exceptional job at pinpointing the real reason why poverty plagues many people in the U.S. Quoting Michael Novak, he notes:

By contrast, observes Catholic neoconservative writer Michael Novak, research demonstrates that the way out of poverty for most Americans is to make a few simple life choices. “Some 97 percent of those who complete high school, stay married (even if not on the first try), and work full-time year-round (even at the minimum wage) are not poor,” Novak points out. “Nearly all poverty in the United States is associated with the absence of one or more of these three basic accomplishments”—not with insufficient social spending or a lack of economic opportunity.

Family stability, education, and a sound moral fabric can never be overestimated as elements necessary to escape poverty and create economic opportunities. What was so perplexing about the economic views of some students and professors in seminary was that they did not necessarily regard socialism as a negative. The Church would be wise to do its best at helping and encouraging those in need, instead of rallying to the aid of class warfare tactics already deeply entrenched in partisan politics.