The Church of Labor
Against a backdrop of declining union membership and increasing neglect of labor’s concerns in Washington, Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker’s recent campaign to repeal collective bargaining rights for the state’s public employees had the feeling of an endgame being set in motion. Washington Post columnist Robert Samuelson contemplated the Wisconsin standoff in a long-term trajectory—from “Big Labor” to “Little Labor,” and now to “Mini Labor,” as the last remaining union strongholds in the public sector came under fire. Chris Edwards of the Cato Institute matter-of-factly urged Walker and other governors to go further and eliminate collective bargaining entirely for all state and local workers. Twenty-five states already limit public employee bargaining, in whole or in part. The rallies that erupted in Madison give a sense of the anger and desperation among union members and supporters. Many labor analysts describe an “existential crisis” in the movement.
Still more is at stake when you consider Wisconsin’s history. Wisconsin was the birthplace of much of what became the New Deal, as well as mainstream social and labor policy thereafter. Workers’ compensation and unemployment insurance were first enacted in Wisconsin. The state was home to both Edwin Witte and Arthur Altmeyer, the “founding fathers” of Social Security. And yes, Wisconsin, in 1959, was the first state to grant collective bargaining rights to public employees.
Less well known but no less important is Wisconsin’s (and neighboring Minnesota’s) legacy of religious, particularly Roman Catholic, social teaching. The religious concept of the “just wage,” a rights-based alternative to prevailing free-market wage theories, was developed and applied by unsung Upper Midwestern heroes of the New Deal such as Fathers John Ryan and Francis Haas. Key Catholic political ideas such as solidarity and subsidiarity helped to legitimize and frame collective bargaining rights and social welfare policy, while bringing a new moral urgency to government action on such reforms. In combination with overwhelming Catholic electoral support for the Democratic Party in the 1930s, such ideas had a significant impact not only on the development of New Deal policy but on the New Deal’s popularity among religious leaders and religious communities as well.
The longer view, of course, is increasingly clouded. In a national context where collective bargaining has steadily declined over six decades to cover only a small fraction of the workforce, the battle of Wisconsin might better be described as something of an anti-climax. Looking ahead into a future in which preventing further declines will be difficult and even moderate union growth seems unlikely, perhaps there are other questions we need to be asking, and new ways of thinking about what is happening to working families in the United States. Surprisingly, the most illuminating starting point for such new thinking may be the New Deal’s religious heritage.
Today’s labor struggles suggest that these religious ideas helped to expose, more than resolve, profound tensions in American liberalism around labor issues generally and the place of unions in particular. It is for this very reason, however, that they are important for new thinking about the decline of collective bargaining, if not for reviving it in the future. While such a notion may strike many progressives as odd if not dangerous, I believe that widespread indifference and even hostility toward religion among progressives and Democrats in recent years has helped to reinforce certain trends in our political and legal culture that are equally hostile to the goals of organized labor and, indeed, to the very idea of organized labor. This is the little-told part of the story of labor’s decline—how the very same liberalism that has separated church and state and strengthened individual rights on social issues such as gay marriage has helped to undermine collective rights in the economy.
Among the many aspects of social organization that make the United States different from Europe—from higher rates of poverty and incarceration, to growing economic inequality, to higher religiosity by most measures—low collective bargaining rates may be the most striking. At its historical peak in the early 1950s, the rate of collective bargaining coverage in the United States was less than half of the European average today. (Collective bargaining rates, here, refer to the coverage rate among workers who are eligible for collective bargaining—approximately 75 percent of the U.S. workforce. Collective bargaining “coverage,” of course, is not always the equivalent of union membership; some countries, most notably France, have low union density but high collective bargaining coverage because union agreements are extended to non-union workers through various mechanisms.)…