The Church of Labor
One source of labor’s woes that progressives would rather overlook: our too aggressive secularism.
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.)
Some snapshots: In 1960, collective bargaining coverage in the United States was at 29 percent. In Germany it was 90 percent, in Finland it was 95 percent, and in the Netherlands it was 100 percent of the eligible workforce. In Austria, Belgium, France, Ireland, Italy, and even Australia, it was above 70 percent. Between 1960 and 1999, U.S. collective bargaining coverage declined to 15 percent, while in most European countries there was little or no change. In fact, in Austria, Belgium, France, and Sweden, collective bargaining rates actually rose over the same period. Although the 2000s saw some cracks emerge in Europe’s collective bargaining armor, average rates among wealthy democracies in Europe remain above 70 percent, while the U.S. rate has declined to around 13 percent total and less than 8 percent in the private sector. Union membership is at about 12 percent of the total paid workforce. To put this in perspective, the Knights of Labor, among the first national labor organizations in the United States, succeeded in organizing between 8 and 12 percent of the industrial workforce—more than 120 years ago.
There are many theories, often overlapping, about the causes of collective bargaining’s weakness in America. Some highlight specific institutional patterns like the very late arrival of mass unionism. Other causes identified by scholars include comparatively intense employer resistance and hostility toward unions in the courts; still other approaches place more of an emphasis on deficiencies within the labor movement—from corruption, to neglect of organizing, to a focus on “bread and butter” bargaining that left workers exposed to radical restructurings of production (outsourcing, automation, plant relocation, etc.).
More political approaches emphasize the notion that ethnic and religious bonds have trumped class identification in U.S. political party development, rendering labor unable to find an ideologically consistent place in the political system. Still other theories emphasize deeper causes such as a culture of extreme individualism rooted in our origins as a settler society.
The most interesting work on organized labor in recent years has been carried out in the fields of comparative law and political development, where American resistance to collective bargaining has been a major focus. Here, legal scholars such as Thomas Kohler, Michael Wachter, and Reinhold Fahlbeck have examined collective bargaining and economic policy in the United States through the lens of comparative legal traditions. Much of this new work traces the continuing decline of collective bargaining to conflicting legal cultures—what Fahlbeck describes as the “un-American character of American labor law” and Kohler calls its Catholic “secret history.”
Collective Bargaining and Corporatism
Common to all these analyses, to one degree or another, is the view that labor unions are essentially “corporatist” institutions. Corporatism arose in nineteenth-century Europe in reaction to the French Revolution—first responding to the rise of classical liberalism, with its faith in market individualism and a minimal “night watchman” state, and then offering an alternative to socialism and its belief in economic planning through an all-powerful, centralized state. As the Anglican historian J.N. Figgis wrote, corporatism—in contrast to both individualism and statism—sees “the facts of the world with its innumerable bonds of association and the naturalness of social authority,” and this social reality, he argued, should “become the basis of our laws, as it is of life.”
In the United States, the term corporatism refers narrowly (when it is used at all) to business corporations and (often) a sense of their undue influence in politics. But corporatism in Figgis’s sense refers to a much broader political tradition reaching back to the Christian idea of the Church as a corpus mysticum, or mystical body of Christ. The idea of a mystical body, a group of persons who are united by a common spiritual identity and purpose, evolved, often in conflict with political authority, into a broader juridical tradition of freedom of association and sovereignty within the state. Corporatism aligns with this juridical tradition, adding a strong component of coordination for the common good.
In corporatist thinking, natural associations—including the family, religious bodies, occupational guilds and trade unions, and various other communal structures—should be legally enfranchised in their corporate nature, empowered as both subjects and creators of public policy, and protected as vital instruments of the common good. Corporatism addresses issues as fundamental as family formation and faith-based social services, and as a heritage of the guild system, it was also a source of modern labor law and industrial policy.
Corporatism plainly does not conform to America’s comparatively ultra-liberal legal and policy tradition, in which individual contractual liberty is the paramount ordering principle. Michael Wachter, in a notable 2007 University of Pennsylvania Law Review article, argued that the fundamental difference is between a system in which wages and household welfare are excluded from market competition (corporatism), and one in which wages and household welfare are subjected to market competition (economic liberalism). Essentially, modern corporatism seeks to preserve social cohesion and promote the common welfare by establishing bargaining, policy, and regulatory frameworks that insulate key social structures and relations from market forces.
Corporatism was one of three basic pathways of state development in Europe—alongside liberalism and socialism. Liberalism, characterized by less intervention in markets and lower social spending, has been dominant in the Anglophone countries; socialism has been dominant in Scandinavia, marked by social-democratic parties, significant intervention in markets, and higher social spending; and corporatism, often described as a “third way” between liberalism and socialism, has been influential or dominant in Central and Southern Europe—and is characterized by Christian Democratic parties, significant economic coordination through legal empowerment of societal groups, and moderate social spending oriented around the family. The impact of corporatism is seen most clearly in the systems of “co-determination” in many European countries. First ratified in Germany under the Christian Democrats in the 1950s, co-determination gives representatives of labor a formal role in decision-making at the shop floor level, the firm level, and in some cases the sectoral level. The spread of co-determination in other parts of Europe has also drawn on radical republican and socialist ideas about democratizing the economy.
The United States has generally had only two pathways: extreme free-market liberalism on the one hand, and a more statist “progressive” liberalism on the other (often termed “socialism” by right-wing commentators). Yet, as the new work in comparative law has illuminated, there have been exceptions in U.S. policy history, with particular relevance for collective bargaining. The most prominent exception, of course, is the early New Deal—a “corporatist economic policy,” Wachter argues, launched under the National Industrial Recovery Act of 1933 (more on this below). Here, collective bargaining rights were made a pillar of national recovery along with business codes designed to insulate labor from ruinous competition.
The Roots of Corporatism in Labor and Religion
To grasp the “un-American” character of collective bargaining and why this is relevant today, it is important to understand the historical roots of corporatism and how such thinking developed. Essentially, corporatism arose in reaction to the spread of free-market liberalism and the sharpening crisis of poverty and inequality that engulfed the industrialized world by the end of the nineteenth century. The corporatist response diagnosed the nineteenth-century crisis as a social crisis, with roots in the French Revolution’s ideology of individual liberty and absolute property rights. The corporatists feared that the revolution would go beyond the obvious attacks on aristocracy and the “vestiges of feudalism” to embrace a more radical vision of democracy in which all other orders of lawful existence outside of the selfhood and property of individual citizens would be dissolved.
By the early 1790s, France’s revolutionary Constituent Assembly had issued decrees against the religious orders and passed laws abolishing trade unions and other social bodies, pressing further and further into the corporate and communal structures of religion, work, and family life. In this context, labor associations and religious associations were similarly excluded from the law and denied communal sovereignty in their respective realms of work and spiritual development. As Jean Le Chapelier, author of the ban on trade unions, put it, “Free conventions between individual and individual” would take their place. So, too, communal forms of property connected to such structures were also either absorbed or dissolved by the state. As historian William Sewell concludes, “only absolute individual property survived the Revolution, and this pared-down and purified form of property was placed in a new and much more central place in the social order.”
Radical liberalism challenged associational life in the United States as well. In the name of protecting “contractual liberty” or an employer’s “property” in unimpeded commerce, collective bargaining was resisted for more than a century. Under the common law, workers’ organizations were treated as “conspiracies.” “At issue throughout,” legal historian Christopher Tomlins writes in The State and the Unions, “was the status of associations of workers in a republic increasingly dominated by the entrepreneurial interpretation of the meaning of the Revolution.” Worker combinations were not only injurious to commerce, opponents argued, but because they were designed to empower workers in their contractual relations with employers, they threatened the very survival of republican government based on the law of property and contractual freedom. In addition to conspiracy doctrine, federal labor injunctions and anti-trust laws further held back organized labor.
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