All Commentary
Wednesday, November 18, 2009

Benedict XVI on Labor Unions

On June 29 Pope Benedict XVI issued an encyclical letter titled Caritas in Veritate (CV) in which he discusses several economic questions. There is much in the letter that suggests Benedict lacks a clear understanding of economics, such as his belief that market exchanges should involve things of equal value. However, notwithstanding absurd claims by union bosses, the encyclical cannot reasonably be read to endorse unionism as we know it. Some unionists have gone so far as to assert that CV demonstrates that Benedict supports the deceptively named Employee Free Choice Act (EFCA). The pope actually says little about unions, and there is nothing in CV to suggest that Benedict supports American-style coercive unionism, much less the efforts of union bosses to attain even more coercive power over workers through the EFCA.

In §25 of CV Benedict worries that “deregulation” of labor markets can be hazardous to the interests of workers. AFL-CIO chief John Sweeney and Service Employees International Union (SEIU) president Andy Stern interpret this as Benedictine support of regulations like the National Labor Relations Act (NLRA). However, Benedict neither cites any concrete examples of the deregulation he abhors nor endorses any specific labor regulation regimes. He is concerned that the pressures of global competition can diminish the ability of “workers associations” to protect the legitimate interests of workers. He explains:

Through the combination of social and economic change, trade union organizations experience greater difficulty in carrying out their task of representing the interests of workers, partly because Governments, for reasons of economic utility, often limit the freedom or the negotiating capacity of labour unions. . . . The repeated calls issued within the Church’s social doctrine, beginning with Rerum Novarum, for the promotion of workers’ associations that can defend their rights must therefore be honoured today even more than in the past. . . .

Of course workers should never be forbidden to join voluntary workers associations in support of worker rights. Nor should any government limit the ability of such associations to represent the interests of their members. Although Benedict did not describe workers associations as “voluntary,” his reference to Leo XIII’s 1891 Rerum Novarum (RN) makes clear that that is what he had in mind. In §54 of RN Leo warned that workers should not be forced to join labor unions that “do the utmost to get within their grasp the whole field of labor and force workingmen to join them or to starve.” A more fitting description of the EFCA, which would permit union thugs to terrorize any worker who refused to sign a union card, is hard to find.

Leo revisited the question of legitimate unions in Longinqua (1895). Such unions have “very important duties” among which are “not to touch what belongs to another; to allow everyone to be free in the management of his own affairs; [and] not to hinder any one to dispose of his services when he pleases and where he pleases” (§16). The NLRA violates each of these duties. Union security (forced dues) allows unions to touch and take what belongs to another; exclusive representation (forbidding individuals to decide on their own whether to be represented by a union) denies workers the right to manage their own affairs; and strike rules prohibit workers from disposing of their services when they please and where they please.

In §63 of CV Benedict writes that part of the definition of “decent work” is “work that permits the workers to organize themselves freely, and to make their voices heard.” Yet exclusive representation prohibits free organization and overrides individual voices. Individual choice in affiliation is overridden by mandatory submission of a numerical minority to the will of a numerical majority. Individuals are forbidden to represent themselves. Individuals are forbidden to discuss terms and conditions of employment with their employers without union permission. Employers are forbidden to reward individual workers for meritorious performance without union permission. Individuals have no voice. Only unions may speak.

Again in §63 Benedict writes, “The global context in which work takes place also demands that national labour unions, which tend to limit themselves to defending the interests of their registered members, should turn their attention to those outside their membership, and in particular to workers in developing countries where social rights are often violated.” Neither Sweeney nor Stern assents to this idea. They vigorously oppose even the Colombian Free Trade Agreement, which would abolish Colombian tariffs on U.S. goods in exchange for the U.S. continuing not to impose tariffs on Colombian goods. Free trade and the economic development that goes along with it are dependable means to foster the rights of workers in developing countries.

In §64 of CV Benedict reminds his readers, “The Church’s traditional teaching makes a valid distinction between the respective roles and functions of trade unions and politics.” In this he follows John Paul II in §20 of Laborem Exercens (1981): “[T]he role of unions is not to ‘play politics’ in the sense that the expression is commonly understood today. . . . [T]hey should not be subjected to the decision of political parties or have too close links with them. In fact, in such a situation they easily lose contact with their specific role, which is to secure the just rights of workers within the framework of the common good of the whole of society.”

The AFL-CIO and the SEIU, along with most other unions, especially those representing government workers, are deeply immersed in American politics. Stern brags that “We spent a fortune to elect Barack Obama—$60.7 million to be exact—and we’re proud of it.” It pays off. For example, Obama appointed Hilda Solis, the SEIU’s “top choice,” secretary of labor. Solis was a four-term member of Congress thanks in part to over $900,000 of campaign contributions from unions. And it is not just money. For example, on August 6 purple-shirted enforcers from the SEIU allegedly assaulted Kenneth Gladney at a town-hall meeting in St. Louis for passing out “Don’t Tread On Me” flags in opposition to ObamaCare. Unions and the American politicians they have bought need each other to survive.

In sum, Pope Benedict does not ally himself with the likes of Sweeney and Stern. In keeping with papal teaching on labor unions since Leo XIII, he is more in tune with Samuel Gompers, who founded the American Federation of Labor (AFL) in 1886. In the April 1916 issue of the American Federationist, the official AFL newsletter, Gompers wrote, “The workers of America adhere to voluntary institutions in preference to compulsory systems which are held to be not only impractical but a menace to their rights, welfare and their liberty.” He carried this belief through to the end of his life. In his last address as president of the AFL at its 1924 convention, shortly before he died, he said: “Men and women of our American trade union movement . . . I want to urge devotion to the fundamentals of human liberty—the principles of voluntarism. No lasting gain has ever come from compulsion. If we seek to force, we but tear apart that which, united, is invincible.”

Benedict XVI doesn’t, and Samuel Gompers wouldn’t, approve of the coercive features of the NLRA and the EFCA.

  • Charles Baird is a professor of economics emeritus at California State University at East Bay.

    He specializes in the law and economics of labor relations, a subject on which he has published several articles in refereed journals and numerous shorter pieces with FEE.