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The Worker Question in 2016

In his 1981 encyclical Laborem Exercens, Pope John Paul II wrote, “Human work is a key, probably the essential key, to the whole social question” (#3), and he makes clear that the rights of workers have been central to Catholic social teaching from the beginning. It is disappointing then to see how little focus Catholic analysts have given to the worker question in their discussions of the 2016 election campaign. This is particularly true considering the lack of attention the candidates themselves have given to the issue of work, even as the rights of workers are under sustained attack.

Most people are aware of the current precarious situation of American workers. After three decades of steady growth, real wages for workers have remained stagnant since the 1970s while the overall economy has grown apace. American workers, particularly in manufacturing and some parts of the service sector, face competition from foreign workers willing to work for lower wages and in worse conditions. Businesses are free to pull up stakes and relocate, while less mobile workers are left to suffer the consequences. In the service sector, employers discipline workers with abusive scheduling practices such as “just-in-time” and “on call” scheduling that exploit workers for the sake of efficiency. The resulting economic insecurity is one of the main contributing factors to the populism that has emerged on the left and right in the Bernie Sanders and Donald Trump presidential campaigns.

A key part of the equation for workers in the United States has been the decline of labor unions. Union membership has been in steady decline since the high point of the 1950s, so that today only 6.7 percent of private-sector workers are unionized (if public-sector workers are included, union membership totals 11.1 percent of workers). This decline has been caused by several factors. For one, safe working conditions, overtime pay, and other worker rights are now protected by federal law, whereas in the past these could only be assured through union membership. Unions have also suffered because of the decline in the manufacturing sector resulting from globalization.

Yet it is also true that there has been a deliberate assault against unions. By the early 1970s, labor unions were pushing for wage increases that outpaced the growth in productivity. As the decade progressed, economists and politicians began to blame the unions for contributing to the economic downturn of the time. This diagnosis led to a shift in economic policy, exemplified by the focus on fighting inflation adopted by Federal Reserve Chairman Paul Volcker and his successor Alan Greenspan. Politicians now began to target unions for contributing to inflation, which, it was argued, harmed everyone. Anti-unionism was also fueled by the belief that unfettering business from unwieldy regulation was the key to renewed prosperity.

Perhaps the most important tool for combating unions has been right-to-work laws. The 1935 National Labor Relations Act (the Wagner Act) maintained that businesses could be a “closed shop,” meaning that union membership was a condition of employment for workers, an “agency shop” in which workers paid union dues whether or not they formally joined the union, or an “open shop” in which workers were not required to join a union or pay dues. The Labor Management Relations Act of 1947 (the Taft-Hartley Act) changed this system, however, by outlawing closed shops and giving the states the right to pass right-to-work laws, which outlaw agency shops as well. Many states in the South and Midwest soon passed right-to-work laws, and more recently a number of others have done so as well, most recently West Virginia, so that today twenty-six states have such laws.

Although the idea of right-to-work laws, that workers should not be forced to join unions or pay dues for an organization to which they choose not to belong, seems like a fair one, their supporters fail to recognize that the Wagner Act mandates that all employees share in the contract collectively bargained by the union, whether or not they themselves are members. Unless employees are required to join the union or pay dues, they become free riders benefiting from the union’s efforts without having to support it. The real purpose of right-to-work laws is not to promote worker liberty, but rather to exploit this free rider problem to the detriment of unions.

In January, the United States Supreme Court heard arguments in the case of Friedrichs v. California Teachers Association, in which a group of teachers are challenging California’s agency shop arrangements for public school teachers as a violation of their First Amendment right to free speech. In other words, they are arguing that the requirement to pay union dues forces them to engage in “speech” with which they disagree. If the court finds in their favor, the decision would in essence impose a national right-to-work law on all public-sector unions, if not all unions.

The assault on unions is not limited to right-to-work laws. In 2011 Governor Scott Walker of Wisconsin helped pass a law limiting the ability of public-sector unions to collectively bargain, leading to weeks of protests in Madison (in 2015 Walker signed a law making Wisconsin a right-to-work state, despite earlier opposing such a law). Similar laws have been passed in states such as Indiana and Ohio.

Since Walker’s exit from the 2016 presidential campaign, Florida Senator Marco Rubio has quietly replaced him as the national champion of anti-unionism. In a section of his campaign web site perversely titled “Helping Workers in a New American Economy,” Rubio outlines a number of policies hostile to unions and workers’ rights. Besides advocating for right-to-work laws, Rubio also proposes the reform of the National Labor Relations Board, likely referring to a bill proposed by Senators Lamar Alexander and Mitch McConnell in 2014 which would increase the number of board members from five to six, including three from each party. Although the stated intent of the bill is to “change the NLRB from an advocate [of labor] to an umpire,” the real effect would be a board unable to fulfill its mandated function of protecting workers’ rights as a result of gridlock.

Rubio also vows to reverse the NLRB’s 2015 decision to treat companies that use temp agencies or franchises as “joint employers” of workers, making them subject to collective bargaining agreements with unions. Rubio argues that the decision will harm franchise businesses, but it enhances workers’ right to contest working conditions over which the franchisees have no control. Finally, Rubio proposes to nurture the so-called “sharing economy,” exemplified by companies such as Uber, TaskRabbit, and Instacart, which promote convenience for the customer often at the expense of exploiting workers.

Given these looming threats to workers’ rights, it is surprising that so little attention has been given to the issue in the 2016 campaign. Even the avowedly democratic socialist Bernie Sanders has said little about protecting workers’ rights, instead focusing his attacks on Wall Street financiers.

If human work is “the essential key to the social question,” then Catholics ought to resist this silence. We should push our politicians to more openly advocate for unions and workers’ rights. We should make the case for unions, both appealing to our own tradition of labor activism and to evidence-based arguments that can appeal to our neighbors.

Catholic teaching insists that work is not a mere commodity, but a truly human activity. This means that workers cannot be treated as cogs, but rather should be provided with decent wages, fair scheduling, and the right to unionize and collectively bargain. For work to be truly human, workers should be able to participate in some way in the management of the enterprise.

The suppression of unions has also contributed to our precarious economic situation. By limiting workers’ purchasing power, the weakening of unions has led to a decrease in investments in the “real economy” of manufactured and consumer goods and the increasing “financialization” of the economy through investment in inherently speculative financial markets. This financialization of the economy then leads to periodic bubbles and bursts, most recently experienced in the financial crisis of 2007-8. Greater respect for workers’ rights, and greater worker participation in economic decision-making, would, as Catholic social teaching has always insisted, lead to more sustainable forms of economic growth that benefit working families, not just those at the top.

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