Matt Salisbury is a writer, designer and entrepreneur living in San Diego, CA.  He's interested in ways the Catholic Church's rich social teaching impacts political questions, society, and culture.

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The UNION Forever!

By Matt Salisbury

Are the Michigan fisticuffs over organized labor or organized crime?

Michigan is a relatively humdrum state. It managed, however, to make screaming national headlines last week by passing the most stridently anti-union legislation in recent memory. This is due to the out-of-state money, the Koch brothers, and outsourcing. Or so they say. The reality is actually pretty interesting. The legislation undoubtedly sparked a bona fide firestorm:

“As thousands of incensed union members filled the Capitol rotunda and poured out onto its lawn chanting “shame, shame,” labor leaders and Democrats said they would immediatedly mount an intense, unceasing campaign to regain control of the Legislature and the governor’s office by 2015.”

That’s from a front-page story in last Tuesday’s New York Times. Makes you wonder what the anti-worker, union busting legislation actually entailed. To its credit, the same NYTimes piece offered a concise summary:

“The legislation…outlaws requirements that workers pay fees to unions as a condition of their employment.”

Um, okay.

Apparently not mandating the financial support of unions by every single worker is a threat to their existence. This raises a real red flag. Weren’t unions created to watch out for the little guy? Mandating union dues are essentially adding a tax to the little guy’s paycheck. I have no problem with unions. Nor does the Church. The problem comes when unions monopolize themselves.

“Access to employment or places of labor is made to depend on registration in certain parties…such discrimination is indicative of an inexact concept of the proper function of labor unions and their proper purpose, which is the protection of the interests of the salaried workers within modern society, which is becoming more and more collectivist.”

That was Pope Pius XII’s Christmas message in 1952. The Pope went on to say that the unions existed to make man the SUBJECT – not the object – of social relations.

The monopolization of unions give rise to all sorts of questions: just how representative of workers are they, anyway? And what of union involvement in politics? Quis custodiet ipsos custodes, as the Latins asked. Who oversees the guardians of the proliteriat?

Many Americans recognize that so-called “right-to-work” laws allow workers the freedom to choose: will they negotiate collectively or individually? The answer in the past may well have been clear, but in today’s knowledge, skill, and service-based economy, the past is looking especially creaky. Michigan is now the 24th “right-to-work” state; 40% of union households support “right-to-work” legislation.

Those in favor of mandating union dues argue that unions negotiate on behalf of all workers; if workers reap the benefit, they should have to support the work. This mindset seems to assume an old model of thinking: there is one company that negotiates with one union on behalf of all employees. Why can’t unions themselves become competitive? Union workers, by nearly two-to-one margins, claim they don’t get enough value for the several hundred dollars in annual dues they pay. And if unions are forced to compete directly with management to best represent labor issues, stronger and more equitable management should result. Unions could focus their efforts on problem management in misled companies – exactly what they were originally formed to do.

Unions, like employers and employees, must adapt to an evolving economy. A big part of that is refocusing on the soul and strength of unions: presenting a strong and united front to protect workers from a domineering corporate system.

Unions should never become the problem they fight.

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