The fiftieth anniversary celebration of the AFL-CIO in Chicago has been marred by internecine strife.The Teamsters and the Service Employees International Union (SEIU) have broken away from the federation, reducing its membership by 25 percent. At least three other unions – UNITE-HERE (textile and hotel workers), UFCW (grocery workers), and LIUNA (construction workers) – representing another 15 percent of AFL-CIO members, may join the exodus. The dissidents call themselves the Change to Win Coalition (CWC).
The issue behind the split is the survival of the American union movement in the private sector. In 2004, only 7.9 percent of private sector workers were union members. By comparison, in 1900 – before any union-friendly legislation had been enacted – the figure was seven percent. Private sector unionism is on the verge of irrelevance, and union leaders are trying to figure out what to d oabout it. There are two principal approaches: politics and organizing. John Sweeney, president of the AFL-CIO since 1995, believes the solution to the problem lies in spending union money to buy the favor of politicians who will, in return, change the law to make it more difficult for private sector workers to remain union-free. Sweeney has been following that strategy since 1995 to no avail. Andy Stern, president of the SEIU and prime mover of the CWC, says that to survive and grow, unions must pay attention to recruiting new members.
Stern has the more logical approach. To survive and grow, businesses must constantly recruit and maintain new customers and congregations must recruit and maintain new members. Why should unions be any different?
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.
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 Walmart by peaceful persuasion have consistently failed, as evidenced by the failure of unions to win majority votes in every Walmart representation election that has been held. Now those same unions are trying to bring community pressure on Walmart to force its workers into monopoly bargaining arrangements.
Pope JohnPaul 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 multiple popes' emphasis on the common good.
Stern's strategy 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 both developed and developing economies. Labor unions should not be immune from the challenge to constantly respond to their constituencies and changes in the marketplace.