How Organized Labor Lost Its Way: Labor Day Reflections on Unions
Today is Labor Day which is not, as some surmise, a holiday merely to rest from our labors. It began as a celebration of labor unions and the workers that comprise them; unions like the ones that have played a prominent role in my life.
My life started in a union home. My father was a New York City union iron lather. His father was in a union. My uncle was in the NYPD union. My grandfather was in the FDNY and worked hard for the union. Growing up it was hard to find anyone not in a union of some kind. There was never any possibility that we would not be pro-union. Unions were good for workers and that was good for us all. Later, after I had begun to pastor, my first two churches were in union dominated cities.
I still remember driving up to a home to visit a union worker interested in our new church in Erie, PA. My car at that time was a Nissan Sentra. After his reaction, I sold that car and determined to go American built and union made. I stuck with that plan for over a decade-- until I could not longer afford the repair bills on my American-built and union-made cars. Then I bought a Honda (made in America, btw).
On the flip side, there have always been Christians who did not believe in unions. For example, a pamphlet on the subject of union membership explains the Protestant Reformed Church's view:
We refuse to become members of the Union because we condemn the principles of utter materialism of the Union; because the Union demands in the required oath or pledge loyalty to itself even though this loyalty to the Union would bring us into conflict with the interests of the Church of Jesus Christ our Lord; and because the Union seeks to gain its ends by force, strikes and boycotts, all of which militates against the Word of God which we hold dear and which is the first and last criterion for our conduct on earth ("Acts of the Synod 1941 of the Protestant Reformed Churches," pp. 75-77; synod adopted the letter and decided to send it to the president in Art. 83; in the following article, synod decided to send a copy "to every member of Congress and to every member of the President's Cabinet").
Though my view of unions has changed somewhat over the years, I am not persuaded that unions are inherently wrong for Christians. Under our laws, unions can have legal standing and as such can take collective action. As long as a worker freely chooses to be part of a union, and is not coerced or threatened to join (something that isn't always the case), unions are simply the collective voice of workers in negotiation with management. While the structure of today's unions are not always in line with the best practices of fairness, the concept does not mean that Christians must not be a part of a union.
If everyone lived in just societies with totally fair employers, workers might still choose to unionize, but it would not be out of necessity. When I did consulting with Lowes, the focus was to create and maintain a workforce that did not need unions. If you treat workers justly and fairly, they do not need a union. If companies treat their employees poorly resulting in unionization then the management neglected the principle of sowing and reaping.
There is little argument that unions were a key part of the formation of a middle class, strong economic growth and a strong country. Unions were needed-- work weeks were brutal, conditions dangerous, and management had no accountability. Yet (for many) that need is seen as less important and the downside of unions are now more prominent in the minds of many Americans.
The Pew Research Center released a poll last year with the headline, "Labor Unions Seen as Good for Workers, Not U.S. Competitiveness." The story explained, "The favorability ratings for labor unions remain at nearly their lowest level in a quarter century with 45% expressing a positive view."
There are many reasons for this view. As you can see in the book Crash Course, unions have often proven willing to destroy the very companies that gave them employment in the foolhardy attempt to get every concession they could. In this there was no symbiotic relationship. Rather, the unions became parasitic and drained the life from the hosts. The attitude was clearly to continually increase perks for existing employees, rather to defend the rights of all employees by demanding a healthy and non-exploitive work environment. In other words, unions did the same thing of which they had accused the owners--they got all they could at the expense of others.
I remain convinced that we need unions (or the threat of unions) because of the depravity of human nature if for no other reason. Yet, unchecked unionization is just as naïve as unchecked capitalism. Greed is greed, and it's always sin no matter who is expressing it. Even when needed, unions (being composed of human beings like us) can become more focused on their own benefit, ultimately failing at their intended task. The sense of entitlement and power some unions have developed undermine the workers because they undermine the work.
Until that changes, the perception of unions will continue to be negative and their value as American institutions will continue to decline... at least until the pendulum swings once again.
Feel free to share your thoughts in the comments-- what has been your experience with unions?
(This column is a repost from Labor Day 2011.)