Unions as an Established Religion
JANUARY 01, 1981 by CLARENCE B. CARSON
Dr. Carson has written and taught extensively, specializing in American intellectual history. He is a frequent contributor to The Freemen.
Just what sort of organizations labor unions are is not only an intriguing but also an important question. It is a question which assumed much more importance after the United States government empowered them in the 1930s. By that empowerment they became legal entities, but what sort of entities was left in doubt. Congress did attempt to define them, but the definition was in terms of their composition and purpose, not of their nature or essence. Nor have economists or historians done much by way of clarifying their basic nature as organizations. Students and critics alike have tended to assume they are what they claim or appear to be.
Customarily, modern labor unions have been traced backward to their antecedents in the Middle Ages, the medieval guild. There are some similarities between the medieval guild and the modern labor union, but they are mostly superficial. Some medieval guilds were organizations of craftsmen. In this, they did resemble the modern trade union which is organized along the line of trades, skills, and arts. They were organized, too, to restrict entry into the craft. They did so, in the first place, by requiring years of apprenticeship and supervised work before the attainment of independent status as craftsmen. More broadly, as the Dutch historian, Henri Pirenne, pointed out, the craft guild’s “essential aim was to protect the artisan, not only from external competition, but also from the competition of his fellow-members. It reserved the town market exclusively for him, closing it to foreign products, and at the same time it saw that no members of the profession grew rich to the detriment of the others.” In their monopolistic and egalitarian emphasis the guilds resembled labor unions.
But basically guilds were different from modern labor unions. Craft guildsmen were fundamentally merchant craftsmen. Although they did work at their crafts, they were organized primarily as merchants rather than as workmen. Their monopoly was of the sale of their products in a given jurisdiction, not of their labor. They were shoemakers, hatters, bakers, butchers, tailors, pewterers, and so forth, and they dealt directly with their customers. The guilds were different, too, in that they were corporations; whereas, the modern labor union is not ordinarily incorporated. (Medieval corporations usually had a monopoly within a given jurisdiction; whereas, modern corporations may or may not have a monopoly.) Above all, it should be made clear that craft guildsmen were capitalists, though on a small scale, and they were not in any sense organized against employers, management, or capitalists.
The craft guilds fitted within a medieval framework of specialization, status, regulation, and class. Their locus was the city or town within which they were incorporated. They were the craft counterpart of clergymen, knights, export merchants, and others. They were fraternal organizations within the social and religious setting of their age. As one history puts it, “The gilds were also religious associations, benefit societies, and social clubs . . . . Gildsmen attended the funerals of deceased members, and tried to care for their families. They kept candles burning in the chapel of their patron saint, and often hired special chaplains to say Masses for the repose of the souls of their dead colleagues.” In short, the craft guild was a medieval institution. It was a medieval mode for containing a commercial activity so that it would not become competitive and expansive. It was no more like a modern labor union than a knight in armor is like a twentieth century soldier.
True, there are some relics of the craft guilds to be found in the modern union, but they tend to conceal rather than reveal the nature of the modern union. The guild was the result of pressing yet another order of men into the medieval mold. The labor union is the leading edge of a militant collectivism aimed at fundamentally altering the prevailing order. This does not tell us what labor unions are, as organizations, but it focuses our attention in a direction where we may be able to discover the answer. Labor unions have never come close to comprising all those working people whom they claim as their clientele. They are, then, a portion of a whole, or, more precisely, several portions usually, since there have been divisions among unionists. In religious terminology, they are a sect, or several sects. And it is as a religion that they are now to be considered.
The idea of unionism as a religion first occurred to me after reading an article in a historical journal. The article dealt with the use of appeals drawn from nineteenth century Protestant evangelism by union leaders. The author was concerned with the influence of certain religious ideas on unionism rather than with unionism as a religion. His main conclusion was that “Prophetic Protestantism offered labor leaders and their followers a trans-historic framework to challenge the new industrialism and a common set of moral imperatives to measure their rage against and to order their satisfactions.” These observations prompted my thinking along a somewhat different path.
The question that occurred to me was this: What if unionism is a secular religion? If it is, then, it has to be an established religion, for there is no doubt that labor unions were established by their empowerment in the 1930s. But whether or not unionism is a religion is the crucial question for which evidence of establishment provides no proof.
The burden of proof clearly rests on anyone who asserts that it is. It cannot be assumed. It is not generally accepted, or even alleged. It is not self-evident. Moreover, much of the evidence for it becomes evidence only when the connections have been made. Yet a strong case can be made that unionism is a religion, or, more precisely, religion-like, and that labor unions are esentially organized around a set of beliefs. And, when unions are viewed in this light, their basic character does begin to emerge.
Perhaps, the best approach to the religion-like character of unionism is through the feel of it. Unionism feels like a faith. It is something in which one believes or does not believe. The feeling of the unity of the working class has been its touchstone. “An injury to one is an injury to all” has been the phrase most commonly used to describe the “proper” attitude of a union man. An interesting sidelight on this occurred at the founding convention of the Industrial Workers of the World (I.W.W.) at Chicago in 1905. Amidst the revolutionary fervor of the proceedings, one of those present rose to question the accuracy of the phrase. He pointed out that an injury to one worker, or even to one group of workers, need not be an injury to all. Of course, he was silenced. The Arian challenge about the divinity of Christ was at least entertained at the Council of Nicaea in 325; not so, reasonable objections to a primary article of faith of unionists in Chicago in 1905.
The missionary character of union organizing work has sometimes been noted. One writer points out that “During the nineteenth century union organizers were often called ‘missionaries’ . . . . Nowadays, in the interest of greater accuracy, the term has been dropped.” But another writer declares that “Even in more current times, the motive power for new unionism is provided by men and women whose main drive is the spreading of the gospel of unionism.” The parallel with missionary work shows in this description by one organizer of his work: “Half of the mornings I would be up at a factory gate before 7 A.M . . . . distributing leaflets . . . . Each such morning was an experience; you didn’t know whether the look you got from a passing worker indicated hostility, agreement, indifference, or what. A certain percentage always refused the leaflet . . . . others took them and ostentatiously tore them up. Always, however, there was a smiling face and one or two people who wished you luck. After a while you were able to strike up a conversation with some of them . . . . The idea was to form a nucleus of five or ten people, call them to a meeting . . . and let them do the recruiting from the inside.” The term “conversion” was sometimes used to describe what had happened to those who had come to believe in unionism.
Ideology as Religion
But the main proof of the religion-like character of unionism is in its dependence upon and relationship to ideology. Ideology is, if not the religion of modern man, the contemporary religion of many people. For some, secular ideologies have entirely supplanted transcendental religion. For others, they have come to supplement traditional religion so as to reduce it largely to the status of a relic. And for almost everyone, the pervading intellectual outlook is temporal, secular, and this-worldly. Ideologies fill the place vacated by traditional religious belief and tend to provide such religion as many people have.
The onset of ideologies which supplanted or supplemented transcendental religion was signaled by the appearance of numerous “isms” in the nineteenth century, such as, socialism, conservatism, liberalism, transcendentalism (man’s transcendence), communism, capitalism, Darwinism, materialism, scientism, progressivism, and so on. Not all of these were fullfledged ideologies, but the tendency in that direction was indicated by the attaching of the suffix “ism” to words.
Leaders as Ideologues
Unionism might have been an ideology itself, distinct and independent of all others. For some, it may have been. A case can be made that the ideology of Samuel Gompers, longtime head of the American Federation of Labor, was unionism. One labor historian describes his attitude this way: “The trade union’s purpose was to maximize the price of labor through collective bargaining . . . . For the worker the supreme loyalty must be to the union; for the union supreme loyalty must be to the economic advancement of the worker. For the organization must be exclusive, uncontaminated—‘pure and simple.’ Nonworkers who intervened in union affairs were meddlers . . . .” If William Green, who succeeded Gompers as head of the A.F. of L., was anything other than a unionist the fact has not come out. Indeed, the list of union leaders who were ideological unionists, if ideologues at all, should include John L. Lewis, William L. Hutcheson, such Teamsters as Dave Beck and Jimmy Hoffa, and, in more recent times, George Meany. Such unionism, too, falls considerably short of being a religion.
But unionism in America is not an independent ideology, not usually, not historically, and not in those dogmas which are necessary to its general acceptance. It is not that “pure and simple” unionism would not succeed sometimes as a basis of organization and in the advancement of some particular group of workers. William L. (“Big Bill”) Hutcheson demonstrated the poten tialities of such unionism with the Carpenter’s union which he headed for several decades. He was a huge man who was determined to and did become master of his domain. His domain, in his view, included all who worked with wood or with materials that had been substituted for wood. His jurisdictional battles were legendary, and his domination of those under him was rarely questioned. “His world was seen through the narrow-angle lens of the union’s interests; his only concern was with what was good for the Carpenters, not with what was good for the labor movement, workers in general, or America.” The anti-social charactor of his unionism was apparent to all who would see it. Moreover, it is highly doubtful that he could have succeeded to the extent that he did without the protective coloration drawn from another ideology and which was coming generally to prevail.
Unionism is a derivative ideology; it derives from and depends upon socialism. Its collectivism finds its justification in socialism. The crucial doctrines of class consciousness and the class struggle derive from socialism. Socialist ideology provided the protective coloration for union advancement of the interests of particular groups.
Influenced by Socialism
One way to examine the dependence of unionism on socialism is through the influence of socialism on union leaders over the years. That is larger than is generally recognized.
Even Samuel Gompers, accepted in his day as being among the most conservative of union leaders, was influenced by socialism. He heard the doctrines of socialism from German and Hungarian immigrants who worked alongside him making cigars in New York City.” He also studied them on his own. Gompers disavowed the utopianism of socialism and steered clear of militant class struggle rhetoric, but Theodore Draper holds that the Marxist influence might be the key to his opposition to union involvement in politics.
There were two prominent strains in socialism in the United States in the 1870s and 1880s, one stemming from Lassalle and the other from Marx. Marx opposed the political road to socialism, while Lassalle favored it. Out of this ferment came “ex-Socialists and former Socialist sympathizers who moved from trade-union socialism to trade unionism without socialism. Two cigar makers, Adolph Strasser and Samuel Gompers, traveled this road from socialism to ‘pure and simple’ trade unionism. The American Federation of Labor, which they were largely instrumental in forming in 1886, in part grew out of the reaction against political unionism.” At any rate, the influence of socialism was there at the inception.
With many other labor leaders, there was no doubt of their commitment to socialism. Eugene Debs, quadrennial candidate for President on the Socialist ticket, organized the American Railway Union in 1893. Although his conversion to socialism was subsequent to this, his position on the relationship between unionism and socialism is made clear in the title of a book he published in 1904: Unionism and Socialism, a Plea for Both. He was a prominent figure at the organizing convention of the IWW and for several years thereafter in its work. Daniel De Leon, head of the Socialist Labor party was also a union leader and an important spokesman at the founding of the IWW. William D. (“Big Bill”) Haywood, longtime leader of the IWW was so radical that he was expelled from the executive committee of the Socialist party in 1913.
David Dubinsky, leader of the International Ladies Garment Workers Union, was an enthusiastic socialist before he became a union leader. He was born in Czarist Russia, made his way to the United States in 1911, and within days of his arrival joined the Socialist party. For several years thereafter, his main interest was socialist activities. Sidney Hillman, leader of the Amalgamated Clothing Workers and eventual confidant of President Franklin Roosevelt, was a Russian by birth and a socialist in his early life also. Indeed, in Russia, he had been a Menshevik, the less violent of the Marxist Communist parties. Homer Martin, the president of the United Auto Workers who took the union into the CIO, was under the influence—perhaps, domination would be nearer the mark-of Jay Lovestone. Lovestone was an anti-Stalinist who formed his own small Communist party. The socialist background of Walter Reuther, long a leader in the UAW and CIO, may be better known. His father was a socialist, and he trained his sons to follow in his footsteps. Walter and Victor were members of the Socialist party, and Walter only finally resigned from it to become a Democrat in 1938.
A goodly number of union leaders were Communists, or closely associated with them, particularly in the 1930s and 1940s. This was the case with Harry Bridges of the Long- shoremens, Michael Quill of the Transport Workers Union, and Joseph Curran of the Maritime Workers Union. Lee Pressman, who served as General Counsel for the CIO, had joined the Communist party in 1934 and left it in 1935, according to his statement. Len DeCaux, editor of the CIO News in the 1930s was characterized by Eugene Lyons as a “Fellow Traveler” of the Communists. John L. Lewis used Communists with reckless abandon in organizing the CIO, and Philip Murray, who succeeded him as the head of the organization, did little to disturb their entrenched positions in many unions. Murray, incidentally, had been influenced by the British Fabian socialists, Sidney and Beatrice Webb, in his conception of unions.
Many more names could be given and connections made, but the above should be enough to make the point. My point, of course, is to show that unionism is lineally connected to socialism, that the modern labor union was in considerable measure the offspring of socialism, and that socialists gravitated toward unions and union work. (It should go without saying that it is no part of my purpose to indict people for their beliefs or associations, but since there are those who do, it probably needs saying.)
The role of unions for radical socialists has been described this way: “To be sure, revolutionary class consciousness . . . must await the capitalist crisis that would prove the inability of the economic system to meet the workers’ needs. Prior to the crisis, however, political and trade union activity prepared the workers organizationally and ideologically for the conflict that would result in great social changes. Radi cals were to enter the trade unions in order to win over workers to the ideas of socialism, but also to encourage militant struggles for immediate demands.”
The Religion-like Nature of Socialism and Unionism
The place of socialism in unionism varied greatly, of course: for some it was the springboard into unionism; for others the unions were simply a means of moving toward socialism; for yet others socialism had only provided a framework for unionism of which they may have been more or less conscious. Many individual union members are probably not aware at all of the socialist assumptions which inform unionism.
My broader point is this. Socialism is a religion, or is religion-like, and unionism by derivation is also religion-like. Socialism is religion-like because of its vision of creating a heaven-on-earth. Bertram D. Wolfe concluded the following about Marxism:
In an age prepared for by nearly two thousand years of Christianity with its millennial expectations, when the faith of millions has grown dim, and the altar seems vacant of its image, Marxism has arisen to offer a fresh, antireligious religion, a new faith, passionate and demanding, a new vision of the Last Things, a new Apocalypse, and a new Paradise.
Other varieties of socialism, such as gradualist or democratic, may hold forth the vision less dogmatically, yet they, too, are religion like in their faith. The vision, linked with its unionist thrust, was articulated this way at the founding convention of the IWW:
The road is no doubt long and weary, many centuries have passed before us; centuries of slavery, degradation, misery and disease. Never before have all the forces been present and all the materials at hand to release the world from economic slavery . . . . When such a transformation has occurred results which would be considered by the early Utopians as wild and chimerical will be realized . . . .
Once the view that labor unions are religion-like organizations is accepted, they come into focus, as they never do from any other angle. They are usually advanced as being economic organizations and, sometimes, also as political organizations. But they are not economic organizations: they produce nothing; they transport nothing; and they sell nothing. They are dis-economic organizations. If economy be understood as comprising those actions which are aimed at making available the greatest quantity of goods and services that are most wanted with the least expenditure of the means of production, i.e., land, labor, and capital, then labor unions do not fit into it. Their thrust is in the opposite direction, to raise the price of labor, to restrict the ways in which the means of production may be employed, and thus to increase the cost of production. A corporation is an economic organization; a labor union is some other kind of organization.
Not Primarily Political
Nor is the labor union primarily a political organization. That is not to say that labor unions may not engage in political activities, which they do from time to time, but rather to note that the political effort must always be subordinated to the sectarian interests of their members, else they will consider themselves to have been betrayed. The tangles in which the British Labour govern ments have been caught when they have attempted to deal with unions illustrate the point well. But, at any rate, labor unions are not basically political organizations in the United States.
Labor unions are religious, or religion-like, organizations, and, as I say, once this is grasped they come into focus. Their immediate goals are ethical in character; their ultimate goals are religious. Their economic claims are ethical in character: this is so whether they are pressing for higher pay or dealing with particular grievances of their members. Their political activity has as its purported end the attainment of conditions within which they can successfully press their ethical claims. It is quite possible that both union ethics and religion-like beliefs can be subjected to withering criticism, but that is another matter. What I am doing here is to establish that they are ethical and religion-like organizations, and, having done so, to show where they belong in our system.
As a religion, unionism comes clearly into focus under our constitutional law. The First Amendment to the Constitution declares that “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof . . . .” Historically, the prohibition has two aspects. First, since the United States had no established church or religion when the Constitution was written, it effectually prohibits the establishment of any by the United States government. Second, since some states did have established churches, it prohibited Congress to interfere with these, or such as states might thereafter establish, for it prohibits Congress to make laws respecting, i.e., in regard to, “an establishment of religion.”
Note, too, that it is religion that Congress is prohibited to establish, the most comprehensive way of describing what they were after. This was deliberate. The amendment as it was originally passed by the House and Senate, each acting separately, read this way:
Congress shall make no law establishing articles of faith, or a mode of worship, or prohibiting the free exercise of religion, or abridging the freedom of speech, or the press, or the right of people peaceably to assemble, and petition to the government for the redress of grievances.
Two major changes were made by the conference committee on this amendment before it was approved and sent to the states. One was the substitution of”respecting an establishment of religion” for “establishing articles of faith, or a mode of worship.” The other change was more subtle but hardly less important. It substituted semicolons for three of. the commas in the original proposal. Thus, that part of the amendment dealing with religion is separated from speech and press by a semicolon, as are assembly and petition from the other two sections.
The amendment, as originally drawn, was a rather narrow effort to guarantee that the new government would not tamper with what were called at that time, “the rights of conscience.” Conceivably, it could have been construed to apply only to matters of faith and belief. The changes greatly broadened what was prohibited and by separating the rights protected from one another by stronger marks of punctuation tended to universalize them. And, what is most germane here, it prohibited the establishment of religion.
Establishing Unionism as an Official Religion
When Congress empowered labor unions in the 1930s, it transgressed the prohibition against establishing religion. It went far toward establishing unionism as an official religion. For example, in the Wagner Act of 1935 Congress proclaimed as correct doctrine what is in fact union dogma. To wit:
The inequality of bargaining power between employees who do not possess full freedom of association or actual liberty of contract, and employers who are organized in the corporate or other forms of ownership association substantially burdens and affects the flow of commerce, and tends to aggravate recurrent business depressions, by depressing wage rates and the purchasing power of wage earners in industry and by preventing the stabilization of competitive wage rates and working conditions within and between industries.
More important, it gave labor unions standing which can be fruitfully compared with that of established churches. An established church is one which has special standing before the government. It has been granted special privileges, may have a monopoly within a state or country, and enjoys the protection and support of the government. While the Catholic church had some of the attributes of an established church in Medieval Europe, the species took on its full form during the Protestant Reformation. The Medieval church did not consider itself to be a creature of any or all of the states; on the contrary, it preferred the position that the state was a creature of the church. Not so, however, the churches that were established during the Reformation. In many countries and principalities, the religion of the prince was to be the religion of his subjects. The Peace of Augsburg of 1548, which dealt with Germany, provided that the “princes and governments of the Free Cities were to be allowed to choose between the Roman and the Lutheran faith, but their subjects must either conform to this faith . . . or emigrate.” In England, the king became head of the church as well as head of the state.
Of course, the parallels between established churches and established unions are not exact. Still, there are some highly suggestive similarities. In both cases, the government did the establishing, or recognition and protection. True, during the Reformation, it was the prince who made the decision; nowadays the decisions for unions are made by majorities. But the former was in the days of the divine right of kings; whereas, we live in the age of the divine right of majorities. The industrial strife of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries parallels the religious wars of the sixteenth and seventeenth, and if the full thrust of socialism and the attendant wars is added to the computation the more recent conflicts have been even bloodier than the earlier ones. Churches often have had their canon law; labor unions, by contrast, live under administrative law. And, no Holy Synod has ever scrutinized with greater care the articles of faith than does the National Labor Relations Board, the rules which emerge from its decisions.
The Use of Compulsion
Perhaps, the most crucial similarity between established churches and established unions lies in the use of compulsion. Established churches were supported by compulsory tithes and taxes, often collected by the government. Unions are supported by dues which become compulsory for all workers where a union has been established. Attendance at the established church was frequently required of all inhabitants. In the nature of things, church membership was not compulsory, but many advantages were attendant upon it. Where the union is established, all workers must accept the union as bargaining agent, whether they belong or not. Churches excommunicated; unions expel recalci trant members. No one was supposed to have relations with an excommunicated person. Expelled union members ordinarily only lose their jobs. The Medieval Church could lay regions under interdict, thus denying religious services to people in the area. National unions have been known to pronounce unions as being outside the fold and thus their members to be treated as non-union workers.
The main argument for an established church was that effective government over a people required that they all be of the same faith and belief. The main argument for established unions is that they must be united in order to accomplish their ends. Underlying both these arguments is the idea of a common enemy, or enemies who have to be met and overcome. For Reformation churches, it was other princes, rulers of different faiths, and, ultimately, no doubt, a wily Satan. For labor unions, it is capitalists who will overwhelm them if they are not united.
In sum, unionism is an ideology. It is an ideology which arose from and was enlivened by a religion-like ideology, socialism. When government empowered unions, it established a religion, in effect. When unions were permitted to use compulsion and to have the compulsion of government used for them, they took on the semblance of established churches. This way of looking at them brings them within the framework of historical understanding. There is no reason to believe that when James Madison drafted the First Amendment that he thought either religion or churches were an evil. The evil he sought to prevent was government establishment. Could anything less be said of labor unions? 
The medieval epoch was finished. Individualism was exalted to a way of life. The foundations of modern capitalism were laid. The powers of government were limited. Free enterprise began. In pursuit of his economic ends, on his way to transform the world, European man was released from the restraints and sanctions imposed upon him both by the ecclesiastical tyranny and a vast bureaucratic system of administrative law . . . .
The two ancient enemies of laissez faire were the state and the church. Laissez faire represented the principle of radicalism in both religion and economics. Radicalism was the sword of liberty. Neither the state nor the church has ever loved liberty.