Acton Commentary

Voluntary Association and Union Politics


The 50 th anniversarycelebration of the AFL-CIO in Chicago has been marred by internecine strife.The Teamsters and the Service Employees International Union (SEIU) have brokenaway from the Federation, reducing its membership by 25 percent. At least threeother unions - UNITE-HERE (textile and hotel workers), UFCW (groceryworkers), and LIUNA (construction workers) - representing another 15percent of AFL-CIO members, may join the exodus. The dissidents call themselvesthe Change to Win Coalition (CWC).

Theissue behind the split is the survival of the American union movement in theprivate sector. In 2004 only 7.9 percent of private sector workers were unionmembers. By comparison, in 1900--before any union-friendly legislation hadbeen enacted--the figure was 7 percent. Private sector unionism is on theverge of irrelevance, and union leaders are trying to figure out what to doabout it. There are two principal approaches - politics and organizing.John Sweeney, president of the AFL-CIO since 1995, believes the solution to theproblem lies in spending union money to buy the favor of politicians who willin return change the law to make it more difficult for private sector workersto remain union-free. Sweeney has been following that strategy since 1995 to noavail. Andy Stern, president of the SEIU and prime mover of the CWC, says thatto survive and grow unions must pay attention to recruiting new members.

Stern has the morelogical approach. To survive and grow, businesses must constantly recruit andmaintain new customers and congregations must recruit and maintain new members.Why should unions be any different?

Thereis a deeper problem that unions must confront. Since Leo XIII's RerumNovarum (1891), Catholic social teachinghas supported labor unions as part of a general defense of freedom ofassociation. This defense has not extended, however, to unions that arecoercive 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 nottrespass against the rights of any third parties. Second--and this isimplied by the first--each person is free to decline to associate with anyperson or persons no matter how fervently those others may desire theassociation. American unions, formed and operated under the National LaborRelations Act (NLRA), are not voluntary.

TheNLRA 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 towork at terms offered by an employer to prevent other workers, who are willingto do so, from working.

My approval ofStern's desire to recruit new members applies only to recruiting activitiesthat are themselves based on freedom of association. Peaceful persuasion isfine, coercion is not. Lately some unions have turned to blackmail of employersthrough so-called “corporate campaigns” to force employers to give themmonopoly bargaining privileges over employees who want to remain union-free.For example, efforts to organize workers at Wal-Mart by peaceful persuasionhave consistently failed as evidenced by the failure of unions to win majorityvotes in every Wal-Mart representation election that has been held. Now thosesame unions are trying to bring community pressure on Wal-Mart to force itsworkers into monopoly bargaining arrangements.

JohnPaul II took a firm stand against Sweeney's strategy of relying on politics tosave unions in his Laborem Exercens (1981, n. 20). “The role of unions is not to play politics.... Unions do not havethe character of political parties struggling for power; they should not besubject to the decision of political parties or have too close links withthem.” Sweeney's goal of controlling the Democratic Party through the AFL-CIOhas always been at odds with the popes' emphasis on the common good.

Stern'sstrategy has the better hope of arresting the private sector decline of unions.In order for unions to continue to be a relevant force in pursuing workers'rights, organized labor must rely on persuasion rather than coercion. Workers'interests need to be contextualized within the globalization of competition,which is a necessary condition for sustained real economic growth in bothdeveloped and developing economies.Labor unions should not be immune from the challenge to constantlyrespond to their constituencies and changes in the marketplace.