In light of the recent events in Wisconsin and the statement published by the state’s Catholic bishops, we’re republishing this 2005 article from the Acton Commentary archives:

Voluntary Association and Union Politics

By Charles W. Baird

The 50th anniversary celebration of the AFL-CIO in Chicago has been marred by internecine strife. The Teamsters and the Service Employees International Union (SEIU) have broken away from the Federation, reducing its membership by 25 percent. At least three other unions – UNITE-HERE (textile and hotel workers), UFCW (grocery workers), and LIUNA (construction workers) – representing another 15 percent of AFL-CIO members, may join the exodus. The dissidents call themselves the Change to Win Coalition (CWC).

The issue behind the split is the survival of the American union movement in the private sector. In 2004 only 7.9 percent of private sector workers were union members. By comparison, in 1900–before any union-friendly legislation had been enacted–the figure was 7 percent. Private sector unionism is on the verge of irrelevance, and union leaders are trying to figure out what to do about it. There are two principal approaches – politics and organizing. John Sweeney, president of the AFL-CIO since 1995, believes the solution to the problem lies in spending union money to buy the favor of politicians who will in return change the law to make it more difficult for private sector workers to remain union-free. Sweeney has been following that strategy since 1995 to no avail. Andy Stern, president of the SEIU and prime mover of the CWC, says that to survive and grow unions must pay attention to recruiting new members.

Stern has the more logical approach. To survive and grow, businesses must constantly recruit and maintain new customers and congregations must recruit and maintain new members. Why should unions be any different?

There is a deeper problem that unions must confront. Since Leo XIII’s Rerum Novarum (1891), Catholic social teaching has supported labor unions as part of a general defense of freedom of association. This defense has not extended, however, to unions that are coercive or politically partisan. Freedom of association has two parts. First, each person is free to associate with any other willing person or persons for any purposes that do not trespass against the rights of any third parties. Second–and this is implied by the first–each person is free to decline to associate with any person or persons no matter how fervently those others may desire the association. American unions, formed and operated under the National Labor Relations Act (NLRA), are not voluntary.

The NLRA forbids workers individually to decide whether a union represents them, imposes union fees on workers to pay for representation they do not want, forces employers to bargain with unions, and permits workers who choose not to work at terms offered by an employer to prevent other workers, who are willing to do so, from working.

My approval of Stern’s desire to recruit new members applies only to recruiting activities that are themselves based on freedom of association. Peaceful persuasion is fine, coercion is not. Lately some unions have turned to blackmail of employers through so-called “corporate campaigns” to force employers to give them monopoly bargaining privileges over employees who want to remain union-free. For example, efforts to organize workers at Wal-Mart by peaceful persuasion have consistently failed as evidenced by the failure of unions to win majority votes in every Wal-Mart representation election that has been held. Now those same unions are trying to bring community pressure on Wal-Mart to force its workers into monopoly bargaining arrangements.

John Paul II took a firm stand against Sweeney’s strategy of relying on politics to save unions in his Laborem Exercens (1981, n. 20). “The role of unions is not to play politics…. Unions do not have the character of political parties struggling for power; they should not be subject to the decision of political parties or have too close links with them.” Sweeney’s goal of controlling the Democratic Party through the AFL-CIO has always been at odds with the popes’ emphasis on the common good.

Stern’s strategy has the better hope of arresting the private sector decline of unions. In order for unions to continue to be a relevant force in pursuing workers’ rights, organized labor must rely on persuasion rather than coercion. Workers’ interests need to be contextualized within the globalization of competition, which is a necessary condition for sustained real economic growth in both developed and developing economies. Labor unions should not be immune from the challenge to constantly respond to their constituencies and changes in the marketplace.

After taking a look yesterday at economic consequences of rising food prices along with the affects ethanol may have on the rising food prices, a moral perspective must also be taken into account.

As I stated in my previous blog post, the World Bank says rising food prices have pushed 44 million more people into extreme poverty in developing countries since June of 2010, and are having an adverse effect on people around the globe.  The increase in demand and expanded use of crops have caused global stockpiles to erode.  Stockpiles are important to help ensure a steady flow of food, especially during traumatic times such as large food shortages.  Even the corn stocks of United States, the world’s largest corn producer, amount to 5 percent of annual use which is far below the 13.6 percent average that they have been kept at over the last 15 years.

We are also called to be stewards of the Earth and this not only means not abusing the one planet we are given, but also ensuring that we leave a planet in good condition for future generations.  However, recent studies have called into question whether ethanol is actually better for the environment.  A study conducted by the University of Minnesota demonstrates that corn ethanol is actually more harmful than gasoline to the environment.  Furthermore, a recent article from Forbes also articulates that ethanol gasoline lets out more harmful toxins than regular gasoline.  There are even suggestions that ethanol uses more energy per gallon to produce it than the energy contained the actual gallon of ethanol.

In 2007, Ray Nothstine’s commentary Big Corn’ and Unitended Consequences pointed out some of the effects of rising food prices and the environmental implications of ethanol production.

Ethanol is expensive to produce, has contributed to a rise in gasoline prices, and has its own pollution problems. It requires a lot of fertilizer, fresh water, and productive farm land. And, because of corrosive properties that make pipeline transportation problematic, it takes a lot of trucks to haul it.

While the policies behind increased ethanol production may have been intended to promote good environmental stewardship, the actual results may show a higher negative environmental impact than other fuel sources.

If ethanol is causing the problems recent studies have indicated, then is the ethanol subsidy and the government mandate to continue the increase use of ethanol sound policy?  Continued funding for the ethanol subsidy and a mandate to increase the use of ethanol, when it may not be accomplishing its originally intended goals, might be cause to reevaluate ethanol’s future.  With food prices on the rise, and the demand for wider uses for crops across the globe also rising, the United States continues to fund the current ethanol policy, which may become counter intuitive to its original goals. The United States currently dedicates 40 percent of the amount of corn it produces each year to ethanol, and so you wonder if we are actually working at cross purposes to sound stewardship, and if so, it may be time to look towards a more morally sound solution.

Michigan’s State Board of Education is now calling for expanded funding to pay for universal preschool for 3- and 4-year olds.

One could hope that this news story slipped through a worm hole from a parallel universe in which Michigan has a budget surplus, where businesses are flocking to the state to take advantage of a business-friendly tax structure, and where government-funded preschool strongly correlates with future educational performance.

But no, the story comes from our universe, where the state of Michigan faces a major budget shortfall, has been chasing businesses and workers out of the state with a business-unfriendly tax structure, and where, as Carrie Lukas notes, new data shows that government-funded preschooling does not give children a “Head Start”:

The Head Start program was launched in 1965 and today provides subsidized preschool for about 900,000 children from low-income families at a cost of more than $7 billion. The logic behind Head Start is that it is more than just a transfer program (subsidizing childcare for lower-income Americans). Head Start champions argue that the investment in higher quality preschool will lead to better educational outcomes — and therefore better life prospects — for participants. The government books are ultimately supposed to benefit due to participants’ reduced use of welfare programs and greater economic productivity.

Unfortunately, there’s very little evidence to suggest that this is how it actually works. The Health and Human Services department released a congressionally mandated study that examined how former Head Start students fare. The study revealed that what gains Head Start participants enjoyed during the program all but vanished by first grade. In other words, the billions invested in Head Start failed to change the prospects of participants in any meaningful, measurable way.

And keep in mind that Head Start has achieved these disappointing results while bringing kids into preschool who are at higher risk of coming from dysfunctional home environments. Imagine the effect if Michigan begins subsidizing children out of generally healthy home environments and into public preschool?

Certainly preschool is a good option for many families, and there are many loving, conscientious preschool teachers touching the lives of young children in positive ways. But none of this means the government should be in the business of providing free preschool for anyone and everyone. State governments should focus on their core competencies and let families do what families do best–raising children.

Blog author: jballor
Wednesday, February 23, 2011
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From Abraham Kuyper’s opening address to the First Social Congress in Amsterdam, November 9, 1891, The Problem of Poverty:

The first article of any social program that will bring salvation, therefore, must remain: “I believe in God the Father Almighty, Maker of heaven and earth.” This article is today being erased. Men refuse any longer to recognize God in statecraft. This is not because they do not find the poetry of religion charming, but because whoever says I believe in God thereby acknowledges God’s ordering of nature and an ordinance of God above human conscience–a higher will to which we as creatures must submit ourselves.

Kuyper said this at the close of the nineteenth century, and in the intervening decades the question of the place of the Christian faith in public life has become even more pressing.

This year’s Novak Award winner Hunter Baker has written an important volume on the place of religion in civil discourse, The End of Secularism. He also participated with Jonathan Malesic on a controversy appearing in the latest issue of the Journal of Markets & Morality on the question, “Is Some Form of Secularism the Best Foundation for Christian Engagement in Public Life?” (PowerBlog readers can get complimentary access to the controversy in PDF form here.) Baker and Malesic were also kind enough to follow up on their exchange in the journal with a Radio Free Acton podcast, “Concealing Christian Identity.”

This year also marks the 120th anniversary of the First Social Congress, held in Amsterdam from November 9-12, 1891. In that same issue of the Journal of Markets & Morality, we have the pleasure of publishing a translation of a paper composed by Herman Bavinck at that congress, “General Biblical Principles and the Relevance of Concrete Mosaic Law for the Social Question Today.” This translation also includes an extensive introduction from John Bolt, who writes of the “overlooked” tradition of European social congresses as “organized movements for social reform, often including a variety of groups and interests, and acting in varying degrees of concert over an extended period of time.”

I am Acton’s Web Coordinator, which means I’m behind the scenes making sure everything works in regards to our web presence and web communications. My first post to the Acton PowerBlog brings good news, which is to make everyone looking for a career or internship aware that Acton is hiring talented individuals to fill several positions.

We have a very good internship program that runs primarily during the summer. Interns help out departments including programs, media, publications and communications. You might be a web developer or an aspiring theologian; most talented individuals will find something to sharpen their skills in the intern program. Summer interns always help during Acton University, which is an unforgettable experience that introduces you to hundreds of unique people from around the world. If you’re interested you can check out our internship page for additional information.

If you’re finished with college and need a real job, or you’re just looking for a change, we can help you with that too. We’re looking for a great speaker to fill the role of Program Outreach Director. This position involves plenty of travel and you’ll get to meet a lot of new people. If speaking isn’t your strong suit you could apply for the Program Outreach Coordinator position. You’ll be more involved with administrative tasks like making blog posts (probably much better ones than this) and event coordination. The media department has a similar Media Logistics Coordinator opening you could apply for instead. You’ll work with our media department that produces documentaries promoting Acton’s mission and captures the audio and video at our events. If you feel like you mesh well with Acton’s mission and objectives and need a job you may be the person we’re looking for. Visit the careers page for more information about these jobs.

Our main office is located in Grand Rapids, Mich. We accept applications from all around the world, so don’t be shy!

Economies across the globe are struggling, and rising food prices are not going to make life any easier.  The Acton Institute raised concern for rising food prices, especially corn, in 2007, when Ray Nothstine wrote a commentary on, and at the time, record prices for corn, resulting in revolts in Mexico due to rapidly rising prices for tortillas.  The commentary brought to light unintended consequences of ethanol and its subsidy, including rising food prices.

And again, with food prices on the rise, and the subsidy for ethanol up for renewal, the debate has been given new life.

Corn prices are dramatically rising and are currently more than $6 per bushel.  Compare that to a few years ago in 2005, when corn was less than $2 per bushel.  Also, in November of 2010, corn prices reached a two year high.  However, corn is not the only food stock on the rise.  The past year wheat on Chicago Board of Trade was up 74 percent, and both soybean and cotton futures have already jumped.  Although, these rising food prices have had an adverse effect across the world, and according to the World Bank, since June of 2010, the rising food prices have pushed 44 million more people into extreme poverty in developing countries.

The debate over the cause of rising food prices, especially corn has centered around whether current adverse weather conditions are the culprit, or if it can actually be contributed to ethanol subsidies from the United States.

Weather conditions have recently been less than ideal for growing crops in many parts of the world.  Last year drought in Russia and Argentina, along with torrential rains in Australia and Canada caused numerous problems for farmers, and crop production was less than expected.  Furthermore, a cool wet summer in the United States resulted in a delayed harvest.  China’s current wheat crop is being threatened by a drought which may result in even higher food prices especially because China produces more wheat than any other country.  It is estimated approximately 42 percent of China’s winter wheat crop has been hurt by the drought.

While the unfavorable weather conditions have contributed to rising food prices, critics of the ethanol subsidy claim that the subsidy has played a major role in the rising food prices.  The ethanol subsidy, which is up for renewal, places a 54 cent tariff on imported ethanol and a 45 cent tax credit for every gallon of ethanol blended with gasoline.  Current federal law also mandates the use of ethanol.  Oil companies must use a designated amount of ethanol each year, 12.6 billion gallons in 2011, which will rise to 15 billion gallons by 2015.  The ethanol subsidy is paying oil companies to abide by a mandate required by federal law.

The use of corn in ethanol is continuing to rise.  The oil industry uses more ethanol each year because of the federal mandate, and as of November 2010, ethanol production consumed 40 percent of the corn crop produced in the United States.  If the United States decides not to renew the ethanol subsidy it will not only  save 40 percent of its corn crop, but will also save $25-$30 billion over the next five years.

The United States is a major exporter of food, supplying over half the global corn exports and over 40 percent of soybean exports.  However, with more and more corn produced in the United States being used for ethanol, less corn is used for food; thus, by the law of supply and demand, increasing the price of corn.  With the ethanol subsidy creating an increase demand for corn and raising the price, more and more farmers will gravitate to growing corn instead of other crops that are also needed for food supplies around the world.

With food prices on the rise, it is imperative to think long term when deciding if the ethanol subsidy should be renewed.

Not only are the economic arguments to the ethanol subsidy important, but so are the moral arguments.  Tomorrow I will evaluate the morality of rising food prices and the ethanol subsidy.

Acton On The AirKishore Jayabalan, Director of the Acton Institute’s Rome office, made an appearance today on Vatican Radio to discuss efforts by the G-20 nations to address the growing problem of rising food prices around the world.  Jayabalan discusses how natural events and bad policy are both contributing to the sharp rise in prices seen of late.  Listen to the full interview using the audio player below:

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Budget battles have heated up recently throughout the United States, and President Obama’s budget proposal has not been exempted from the intense discussion.

The current proposal by the President pushes our national debt to $15.476 trillion or 102.6 percent of our GDP.  Furthermore, there are no cuts to entitlement spending which consist of 57 percent of the spending in the budget, or approximately $2.14 trillion.

While it is imperative to our economic recovery to have a budget that is fiscally sound, it is also crucial to have a budget that is morally sound.  There are critics to cutting entitlement programs, however, a fiscally sound budget which may require a look at entitlement cuts and reforms, will help the poor and vulnerable.  If we continue the spending trend the United States has been fostering under previous budgets than economic recovery will be hampered which means less job opportunities.  The poor and vulnerable will be dependent on entitlement programs, violating the principle of subsidarity.

A fiscally responsible budget also abides by stewardship principles.  To be good stewards we must look long term and create a strong and stable prospering economy not just now, but for our children and grandchildren.  Monsignor Ignacio Barreiro-Carámbula addresses this issue in his blog post:

…we are leaving our debts to future generations. We are asking them to pay the principal and the interest on our debt with their labors. This is akin to forcing them into a form of indentured servitude to us, and it will last long after we have gone to meet our Maker. By law, one can reject an inheritance if has more liabilities than assets, but a citizen cannot reject public debt if he wants to remain a citizen…

Rev. Sirico also articulates the necessity of morality in the Federal Budget during his recent interview with Raymond Arroyo on EWTN’s World Over.

Let’s start with Heritage Foundation’s interview of Gov. Scott Walker of Wisconsin: “We’re broke,” he says.

Religious leaders offer sanctuary to senators

Two Illinois clergymen offered sanctuary Friday to Democratic senators who fled Wisconsin in an effort to stop an anti-union bill. But neither said any renegade lawmakers had taken them up on their offer of hospitality. The Rev. Jason Coulter, pastor of Ravenswood United Church of Christ in Chicago, and Rabbi Bruce Elder of Congregation Hafaka in Glencoe joined several Wisconsin faith leaders in speaking out on the behalf of workers’ rights to collective bargaining and praising the missing Democrats.

Wisconsin Catholic bishops urge protection of workers’ rights as protests surge

Although Archbishop Jerome Listecki of Milwaukee and other bishops around the state have not spoken in direct opposition to the proposed budget, they’ve unequivocally reiterated the importance of protecting worker’s rights in light of the Church’s social doctrine. Archbishop Listecki said in a Feb. 16 statement that even though “the Church is well aware that difficult economic times call for hard choices,” current situations “do not nullify the moral obligation each of us has to respect the legitimate rights of workers.” The archbishop then quoted Pope Benedict XVI’s encyclical “Caritas in Veritate,” in which the pontiff criticizes governments for limiting the freedom or negotiating capacity of unions. He also referenced the late Pope John Paul II’s observation that unions remain a “constructive factor” of social order and solidarity. “The bishops are very careful – it’s a balanced statement,” Huebscher said. “Because you support workers or the right of unions to assert and affirm their interests, (it) doesn’t follow that every claim made by workers is valid.”

Faith leaders voice support for unions

Bishop Linda Lee of the Wisconsin Conference of the United Methodist Church sent a letter to Walker on Wednesday articulating her church’s support of unions and collective bargaining. Madison Rabbi Jonathan Biatch invoked biblical and Talmudic passages that support workers’ rights during a candlelight vigil and training event for union members in Madison. And on Thursday, the Washington-based advocacy group Catholics United issued a statement thanking Listecki for taking a stand and calling on Wisconsin officials to “suspend (their) attacks on public workers.”

Wisconsin Is the New France: Entitlement Derangement Syndrome

There is a fundamental and negative cultural shift when individuals move from thinking they should keep the fruits of their own labor to believing they’re entitled to the fruits of others’ labor. Shutting down government for the sake of benefits you didn’t pay for, and health insurance you didn’t purchase, represents an entitlement mentality run amok. Here’s a sobering thought: Entitlement Derangement Syndrome is in its infancy. Wisconsin is paralyzed because of one reform impacting a small minority of its citizens. What happens when the axe falls—as, sooner or later, it must—on Social Security? On Medicare? If the unions can mobilize tens of thousands in Madison, can the entitlement culture muster millions in Washington?

On Feb. 17, Rev. Robert Sirico was a guest on EWTN’s World Over program hosted by Raymond Arroyo. Rev. Sirico, president and co-founder of the Acton Institute, discussed the morality of federal budget making, social networking and the Catholic Church, and Live Acton vs. Planned Parenthood.

Rev. Sirico’s two segments begin at the 10:30 and 37:16 marks.

Arroyo is also joined by guests Rep. Chris Smith and Dr. Andrew Abela.