Wednesday, August 03, 2005

Making sense of Unions

David Phelps makes sense at the One Republic. He discusses the differing approaches to the future of Unions by John Sweeny and Andrew Stern. Sweeny, president of the AFL-CIO, has sought since his election in 1995 to increase union influence over politicians. His goal? Laws that will make life for non-union workers too difficult for them to remain apart from a Union. Andrew Stern, president of the AFL-CIO breakaway union Service Employees International Union (SEIU) and principal of the new Change to Win Coalition (CWC), offers a different plan. He would rather cultivate new members. Mr. Phelps observes unions' dilemna in light of Catholic Social Teaching:
There is a deeper problem that unions must confront. Since Leo XIII’s Rerum Novarum (1891), Catholic social teaching has supported labor unions as part of a general defense of freedom of association. This defense has not extended, however, to unions that are coercive or politically partisan. Freedom of association has two parts. First, each person is free to associate with any other willing person or persons for any purposes that do not trespass against the rights of any third parties. Second - and this is implied by the first - each person is free to decline to associate with any person or persons no matter how fervently those others may desire the association. American unions, formed and operated under the National Labor Relations Act (NLRA), are not voluntary.

The NLRA forbids workers individually to decide whether a union represents them, imposes union fees on workers to pay for representation they do not want, forces employers to bargain with unions, and permits workers who choose not to work at terms offered by an employer to prevent other workers, who are willing to do so, from working.
He also analyzes both Mr. Sweeny and Mr. Stern's strategies through the paradigm of CST:
My approval of Stern’s desire to recruit new members applies only to recruiting activities that are themselves based on freedom of association. Peaceful persuasion is fine, coercion is not. Lately some unions have turned to blackmail of employers through so-called “corporate campaigns” to force employers to give them monopoly bargaining privileges over employees who want to remain union-free. For example, efforts to organize workers at Wal-Mart by peaceful persuasion have consistently failed as evidenced by the failure of unions to win majority votes in every Wal-Mart representation election that has been held. Now those same unions are trying to bring community pressure on Wal-Mart to force its workers into monopoly bargaining arrangements.

John Paul II took a firm stand against Sweeney’s strategy of relying on politics to save unions in his Laborem Exercens (1981, n. 20). “The role of unions is not to play politics.... Unions do not have the character of political parties struggling for power; they should not be subject to the decision of political parties or have too close links with them.” Sweeney’s goal of controlling the Democratic Party through the AFL-CIO has always been at odds with the popes‚ emphasis on the common good.
As a reluctant member of the UFT, I agree with Mr. Phelps assessment of Unions in general and these union leaders' approaches in particular. I have been troubled by the pointless political agitation engaged in by some of my union collegues. I'm incensed at our continued devotion to particular leaders and parties, even when these associations and leaders have been grossly irresponsible towards teachers and society in general. I shudder to think of how they spend my dues. If the UFT leadership were serious about engaging the members, they'd take our concerns more seriously. However, their "business as usual" approach has turned off many of us.

Mr. Sweeney's misguided and morally flawed strategy has failed for a reason. His approach raises the spectre of Statism to a whole new level. Perhaps some Reasonable Democratic hardliners to the left of Senator Kennedy might find this appealing. The less Reasonable and more Foolish of us do not. No one should take his ridiculous ideas seriously. Freedom of association is an essential of the right to participation in civic life, itself a sound CST principle. We can only violate it at our peril.

Union workers are adults. Their leaders should start treating them that way. Then they might find memberships begin to increase again. Or they can continue "business as usual" until their extinct. They had better decide fast. The clock is ticking.