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.”