Union leaders have been jockeying for position ahead of President Obama’s “jobs speech,” since the proposals he makes will be big opportunities for organized labor. AFL-CIO head Dick Trumka has asked the president to spend with abandon, and has reminded him rather ominously, “This is going to be a moment in history when our members are going to judge him.” Teamsters boss James Hoffa has called for the President to force companies with cash in the bank to spend that money on new hires.
It’s a good time to ask what exactly is the purpose of a labor union (or what is it supposed to be), and whether Trumka and Hoffa haven’t ventured beyond a union’s proper domain. Pope Leo XIII’s encyclical Rerum Novarum is most often invoked by defenders of big labor, because it provided an early explication the relationship between “labor” and “management,” and an endorsement of the right of the working class to form labor unions.
The encyclical gives as the aim of a labor union, “helping each individual member to better his condition to the utmost in body, soul, and property.” (¶57) Before that definition, which comes at the end of the encyclical, there is the explanation of what brings a men to join such associations—“because the hours of labor are too long, or the work too hard, or because they consider their wages insufficient.” (¶39) That is to say, men join labor unions because their employers have got the better of them individually, and they hope by common action to tilt the scales of power.
While that is still a main concern of unions—witness the Verizon strike last month—their leaders are more often found hammering politicians than upper management. Big Labor’s forceful methods were more palatable to Americans when workers were fighting forceful opposition from their employers. What the public found so distasteful about Hoffa’s pep talk earlier this week was that he brought that same swaggering Teamsters demeanor to politics, which despite the colloquial, has generally been a cleaner business.
What Hoffa and Trumka want, and what union-backed politicians are willing to give them, is a State that creates jobs for them, by taxing companies and the rich and redistributing money to companies that will hire union workers. The feasibility of such a scheme notwithstanding, lobbying for it does not fall within the purview of a “Catholic” labor union.
“Quintessential labor priests” may have existed in the 1920s and ’30s, but even Msgr. John A. Ryan, known as “The Right Reverend New Dealer,” noted that “no increase in beneficial legislation can adequately supply for the lack of organization among the workers themselves.” Arguments that today’s unions are somehow divinely favored—like this recent nonsense from Sojourners—are at best anachronistic.
Thanks to The Pulpit for the link!