Blast From the Past: On Trade Unions and Churches

I originally published this piece 31 July 2005.  I’m putting it up again because a) it’s Labour Day weekend, and b) the political season is finally becoming a conscious reality for most Americans.  It’s a repeated warning about over-reliance on state institutions to advance an agenda of any kind.

Since that time the Democrats have regained control of Congress.  But the current candidate for President had his genesis with the latté liberals, not with the beer drinkers.

Last week in Chicago, the Teamsters and the SEIU bolted from the AFL-CIO, that great amalgamation of American trade unions put together with so much difficulty. Some people always see a split as a sign of weakness and dissolution. Many on the right are pleased at organised labour’s woes. But popping the champagne corks is premature.

Having spent many years across the table from the Machinists (a good AFL-CIO member if there ever was one,) I have some experience in how trade unions operate and think. I can’t say that my impression is an entirely favourable one; that is partly one of perspective, but there are other elements at work. Having been raised in a left-wing environment where proletarian revolutionaries were cast in a heroic light, I must say that trade unions in the US are something of a letdown, even when their differences from their more radical European counterparts are taken into consideration.

Obviously the labour force doesn’t feel much differently. Since their height after World War II, the portion of the workforce in the US affiliated with trade unions has steadily deteriorated to the point where only one in twelve American workers is a union member. The labour movement is aware of this situation, and it is especially painful in view of the marginal (by American standards at least) status of many workers in the US, caught in the extensive restructuring and downward cost pressures (manifested most prominently in the lack of health insurance) on the American worker. Ironically, today the strongest unions are in the public sector, where the benefits tend to be good.

The labour movement’s leadership is well aware of the problem. In 1995 the AFL-CIO elected John Sweeney as their president. His idea was simple: use the voting and fund raising power of the union (at the centre of which is the checkoff) to secure the Democrat Party’s return to control, and then use the coercive power of the government to force the unions into a dominant position in the American workforce. They have put their best foot and dollar forward in this endeavour, but after a decade the Republicans control both White House and the trade unions decline is unchecked. It was inevitable that sooner or later someone with pull in the movement would decide to do something about this and now the Teamsters—a latecomer to the AFL-CIO—and the SEIU—with a target workforce potentially vulnerable to unionisation—have left to pursue their own priority, which is actually going out and organising workers through direct effort.

Trade unions were originally illegal; their legalisation and the subsequent procedural rights they have won are essential ingredients in their broad success. Today in the US unions enjoy considerable legal power, and how well the unions fare depends in large measure on how cleverly the union leadership uses that power. At this point the legal field is reasonably level. The Teamsters and the SEIU are banking on their ability to use that power to organise large numbers of workers, and from there they can develop the political clout they need.

What both sides in the labour movement may not be considering is that the successes won by organised labour on the political front are one of the reasons why people don’t join unions any more. Social Security has evolved into a principal retirement plan for many, which dilutes the appeal of union pension plans. The erosion of employment at will (faster in some states than others) circumvents the unions’ own grievance procedures, a central appeal of unions. The enactment of so much extensive safety legislation and other workplace protections transfers to the state workers’ welfare which the union could take credit for if they hadn’t lobbied the government into doing their job for them.

The Teamsters and the SEIU are right in their idea of going back to focus on organising workers. But if they lapse into the laziness of getting the state to do their job for them, they’ll be right back in the same fix they’re in now sooner than they realise.

There’s a lesson in this for Christian churches too. In the US, churches have enjoyed legal protection for their existence and activity as part of those “unalienable rights” this country was founded to enshrine. The left would like to see these eliminated, and Christians are right to enter the political arena to defend these. But many Christians have come to see the state as a key instrument of righteousness. In doing this, they run the risk of having the state do their job for them, at which point the church will become redundant. Today many Christians lament the low moral state of our society, and justifiably so, but seeing the state as the primary instrument to fix this problem will only weaken Christianity’s role in doing so. To a large extent, that is the problem with European Christianity.

It’s true that sometimes the line between a level playing field and getting the state to achieve your agenda is a fine one; both trade unions and churches face this problem every day. But some in the trade union movement have realised that one reason why churches have not experienced the decline that unions have is that they have a better focus on going out, recruiting and cultivating new members. Our hope is that, as trade unions figure this out, churches won’t forget it.

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