The Importance of Unions
Susan Stabile at Mirror of Justice at least quoted the historical snippet on Garrison Keillor’s Writer’s Almanac, which notes the historical origin of Labor Day on 5 September 1882, when the Central Labor Union in New York City organized a parade and a picnic featuring speeches by union leaders intended to celebrate labor unions, call for the eight-hour workday, and recognize the achievements of the American worker. Many of the labor laws those early activists fought for, such as the eight-hour workday and 40-hour workweek, were passed in the 1930s, and it was assumed that in the coming decades Americans would work steadily fewer hours. “But in fact,” Keillor notes, “the opposite has happened. Today, more than 25 million Americans work more than 49 hours each week. And 11 million spend 60 hours or more at work each week. Americans also take fewer vacation days than employees in any other industrialized nation, making Americans the hardest-working (or most overworked) industrialized nation on the planet.”
Of course Keillor might have noted some additional surprising setbacks that American workers have suffered. Despite nearly three decades of unprecedented economic growth, real wages have stagnated. Despite a very low unemployment rate, the number of Americans without health care has grown to nearly 47 million.
Among the obvious causes of these setbacks for American workers has been a drastic the decline in union representation of workers in the United States during the same period; in the mid-1950s, 36% of the American workforce was unionized; in 2004 only 12.5%, and only 7.8% in the private sector. The decline in union membership cannot be seen as a choice by workers. In part, it represents the loss of jobs in manufacturing that that have historically been more heavily unionized. But much more importantly, a report by Human Rights Watch documents a systematic attack on U.S. workers’ right to organize in violation of U.S. and International Law (the National Labor Relations Act of 1935, and the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, ratified by the United States in 1992). .
Since virtually all social benefits come through employment rather than government, it is obvious that the erosion of workers’ ability to organize to protect their vital interests will have dire consequences for individual and family welfare. And we can see these consequences anywhere we care to look. Catholic social teaching clearly recognizes the central importance of unions and the worker’s right to organize in modern society:
305. The Magisterium recognizes the fundamental role played by labour unions, whose existence is connected with the right to form associations or unions to defend the vital interests of workers employed in the various professions. Unions “grew up from the struggle of the workers — workers in general but especially the industrial workers — to protect their just rights vis-à-vis the entrepreneurs and the owners of the means of production”. Such organizations, while pursuing their specific purpose with regard to the common good, are a positive influence for social order and solidarity, and are therefore an indispensable element of social life. The recognition of workers’ rights has always been a difficult problem to resolve because this recognition takes place within complex historical and institutional processes, and still today it remains incomplete. This makes the practice of authentic solidarity among workers more fitting and necessary than ever.” — Compendium of the Social Doctrine of the Church. [Footnote 667 — John Paul II, Encyclical Letter Laborem Exercens, 20: AAS 73 (1981), 629.]
Unions, of course, are not perfect institutions. Catholic social teaching recognizes the danger that they can be subverted for purposes contrary to the good of society. But whatever their imperfections, they remain an absolutely essential institution in the struggle for social justice. Day in and day out, unions and union workers are struggling for the things we care about — living wages, gender and racial equality, workplace safety, and empowerment of the marginalized. The USCCB’s very thoughtful and wide-ranging Labor Day message asks us:
“to recommit in our own small ways – to our own work, to treat others justly, and to defend the lives, dignity, and rights of workers, especially the most vulnerable. This is a requirement of our faith and a way to advance the promise of our nation.”
This should include a commitment to supporting workers rights in solidarity with unions. An excellent organization of engaged in this work is Interfaith Worker Justice.