Labor Rights Reality

This article by Nicholas C. Hosford originally appeared on The Distributist Review on 7/25/11

You have an inalienable right to join a union. Distributists believe this right should be protected unequivocally, provided the union exists for benevolent purposes. Although efforts that would prevent or discourage laborers from unionizing are not only wrong, but folly, we should not absolve unions of all criticism.

Unions have become an embarrassment to the American political economy because many have succumbed to corruption. Corruption can include any behavior opposed to the good purposes of a union. Corrupt unions do little to improve the welfare of their purported beneficiaries and may actually impair labor rights in many instances. Indeed, it is not uncommon for a union to resemble a mafia operation. Generally, criticisms of unions are not unfounded, and people have a right to be upset when unions pose a threat to economic progress, stability, and morality.

With that trite disclaimer out of the way, we can discuss the authentic nature of labor unions and the basis for their existence. In their truest form, unions can do much good to advance the quality of life for workers. Although, the purpose of a union and the motivation for joining one must be ethical. By the same token, criticisms of unions must be properly placed. It is wrong to attack unions as such because, fundamentally, unions have every right to exist. This is one of those “self-evident” truths so ingrained in human nature that any offense against it will most certainly, eventually, be met with failure.

Still yet, it is easy to find basic human rights exploited, as does happen when corrupt unionizers use sacrosanct union rights to shield their nefariousness from sound criticism. We have a responsibility to prevent this. Sound criticisms of unions seek not to attack their right the exist, but instead enforce standards by which they must operate. Unfortunately, most of the currently popular criticisms of unions are deftly misplaced, undermining a basic human right that has long been understood and affirmed.

On May 15, 1891, Pope Leo XIII had already begun the fourteenth year of his pontificate. Having issued thirty-six timeless encyclicals, the Holy Father had already spoken on the abolition of slavery (In Plurimis), condemned Socialism and Communism (Quod Apostolici Muneris, among others), identified the evils of society (Inscrutabili Dei Consilio), and named the source of civil power (Diuturnum). On this day, however, he would issue what has become arguably his most widely-known, influential, and controversial encyclical, Rerum Novarum. The subject matter was capital and labor, and it is here that the Pope spoke most plainly on unions.

One of the assertions in Rerum Novarum is that unions “exist of their own right”. People, by their very nature, gravitate towards associations, or what Aquinas described as “private societies”. One cannot deny humanity one of its defining qualities. Therefore, we find in the First Amendment to the American Constitution the reiteration of “the right of the people peaceably to assemble,” and Paragraph 51 of Rerum Novarum concludes:

For, to enter into a “society” of this kind is the natural right of man; and the State has for its office to protect natural rights, not to destroy them; and, if it forbid its citizens to form associations, it contradicts the very principle of its own existence, for both they and it exist in virtue of the like principle, namely, the natural tendency of man to dwell in society.”

Immediately the encyclical proceeds to admit that there are times when lawmakers must repress unions, specifically, when the purposes for joining them “are evidently bad, unlawful, or dangerous to the State”. It is interesting, but not unexpected, that this foretelling statement is so often conspicuously overlooked in both pro-union and anti-union circles. The pro-union position obviously does not want to bring light to any argument against their cause. The anti-union position doesn’t want to admit that unions could ever possibly be be just, which the statement shrewdly implies, nor do they want to deal with an opposition that has covered its bases. (It is also likely that both camps have just plain never read Rerum Novarum, and they don’t even know the statement exists.) Many problems we face today could be averted if we were to follow the Pope’s directive to support unions when they should be supported, and prevent them when they should be prevented. However, capitalism, in all its wisdom, seeks to prevent them when they should be supported, and support them when they should be prevented.

The notion that unions are corrupt is a sound criticism when it is true. Although union supporters should keep an eye out for corruption, they tend to ignore or defend it, perhaps because the point is already so belabored by union opponents as it is. The problem with union opponents is that they argue, or at the very least imply, that union corruption is inherent. Make no mistake, it is not. They nonetheless persist in the argument to attack unions fundamentally for the benefits of sensationalism. They would not gain much ground with a less ostentatious assessment. In any event, the stereotype of corruption is not without justification, and one cannot deny that unions seem to have a propensity for bad behavior.

It is curious why this is the case. Why have labor unions so consistently fallen victim to corruption? The reasons for this are two-fold:

The first reason is found in the nature of capitalism itself. The typical American worker’s union is a mutation rather distant from its natural pedigree. Like a feral dog, the modern union is a product of its environment. It wrestles to exist within capitalism (or semi-capitalism, if you prefer) where labor barely exists as a footnote to more convenient economic variables. Despite being such a young science, economics does a fairly decent job of doing what it set out to do: study the allocation of scarce resources. However, unlike other resources, such as land or capital, labor is unique due to its “human” factor. For this reason, it has always been a difficult element to define and quantify, even for pedants. Economics has yet to fully understand, or appreciate, labor.

How can we therefore expect labor to be appreciated, much less nurtured, amid the private sector, which relies on economics to make policies and decisions?

This neglecting, if not outright hostile, environment has impelled unions to become larger, more militant, and more self-serving than they normally ought to be. The bigger the labor injustice, the bigger the union. As unions vie to become larger and more influential, they inevitably invite mutual corruption between the union and the company, or the union and the politician. The self-serving mandate alone is a major dilemma, as it places the union itself above its principles and members.

The second reason for the apparent corruption amongst unions is that states and societies have been as bad at regulating unions as they have been at nurturing them. There must be a viable set of laws to address unions and their particular susceptibility to corruption. In the absence of such laws, or if they are perverted or not enforced, unions will continue to fulfill their popular stereotype.

While unions bear the legitimate criticisms of their corruption, much of the hatred towards unions amounts to nothing more than immature lambasting reminiscent of school-yard bullying tactics. By taking a moment to consider the efforts of union busters, one can better grasp the magnitude of contempt a capitalist society can have for unions. Capitalism abhors barriers to the free market. Government is the master culprit, but unions are typically near the top of the list. It is ironic that those who propose to remove government intervention in the economy are amongst the biggest proponents of using government to tear down unions that “get in the way” of the market. What these folks fail or refuse to recognize is that unions have as much of a right to be market participants as corporations. Capitalists are willing to sacrifice their principles here in order to merely berate a labor union. For the sake of the free market, one would think unions should be allowed to participate on an equal playing field. It is obvious why capitalists are afraid of this, but their hypocrisy is glaring.

Another general example of union busting is an alternative “free market” approach, which can take the form of a pre-employment contract that exchanges employment for a promise not to unionize. This, of course, is an adhesion contract, and should not be considered any more legitimate than a contract that trades away a person’s right to free speech. How alarming it is that many expect the law to enforce the unconscionable notion that a person may bargain away a basic human right.

Distributism remains the only system that sincerely appreciates this basic human right as a valuable component in an economy, provides a framework that keeps labor unions in check, and does not waste time and resources trying to destroy unionization efforts. It primarily accomplishes this by providing workers with ownership interest in the means of production, which tears down the wall between capital and labor. Decentralized ownership means there is less division between the owner class and the labor class.  This in effect reduces the imperative of labor unions compared to capitalism. When there is less reason to expand enormously and give in to corruption, unions can exist as they naturally should, and the burden on the state to regulate unions will be less. Society can then focus on effective means of protecting unions from any corrupting tendencies.

Distributists accept the reality that unions, good or bad, are inexorable. Collective bargaining is a tool provided by nature. Humans will always take advantage of this, since even stupid people can recognize they will accomplish more as a group than individually. Efforts to bust unions have historically failed and only lead to more frustration and resistance. At best, there will always be the potential for labor injustice, and so there will always be a need for unions. There is no sense in denying this.