The United States has a solidarity problem. The country is plagued by family breakdown, declining religiosity, and eroding trust in government, the academy, and finance. People increasingly behave as atomized individuals, rather than as members of families, parishes, or the other social associations that define a rich human life. Those intermediate institutions have atrophied as we have ceased to trouble ourselves to nurture that solidarity that creates and is created by our common interests and values. The connections that form among us when we live and work together improve our lives and provide support, as they confirm our dignity as individuals and the value of the work we do. But these networks of support have too often weakened, and the bonds that hold us together are in tatters.
It is no surprise then that, despite rhetoric of union strength, the American labor movement is also fraying. While some on the right see this as a good thing, they shouldn't. It may mean the dissolution of one of their political opponents' major power blocs, but this partisan view neglects to appreciate the way in which labor unions can act as a mediating force between the individual worker and the power of corporations and the state. It also neglects the positive, formative influence unions can have on workers' lives through the inculcation of certain democratic virtues. Moreover, unions act as economic-redistribution vehicles at a level far closer to individual workers' lives than the state — a form of subsidiarity that conservatives would typically support.
For the greater part of the 20th century, to speak of solidarity at all would have brought to mind labor unions and their anthem "Solidarity Forever." But recent decades have proven that solidarity is not a given, even for unions; it must be cultivated like any other social value. Organized labor — like religious or political institutions — is always only a generation old. Indeed, labor relies on a blend of both habits practiced by a distinct community and a distinct moral vision to endure. And while the habits and members of the community may adjust to meet new historical realities, if the moral vision is lost, the community cannot hold together. It is like dropping a tooth into acid: It might look okay for a while and might even look strong, but it is dissolving. In time it will simply disappear.
This is what is happening to labor today. Union membership peaked at just over 30% in the 1950s and has declined almost continuously since. By 1983, membership was down to 20%, and the Bureau of Labor Statistics reports that only about 11% of American workers are members of a union today. And even this low number is inflated by the heavy presence of public-sector unions, particularly those of teachers, firefighters, and police. In the private sector, only 6.4% of America's workers are unionized.
This could be explained away — as it often is with some justification — as a result of changing economic realities: Heavily unionized sectors like manufacturing are greatly diminished after decades of outsourcing and massive investment in automation. But as bad as the membership statistics look, the attitudes of potential members and the structural realities related to government finance are much bigger problems.
For the last decade, it has been more common for Americans to report having little or no confidence in unions than to express faith in them. Young workers don't care about institutions that don't seem to care about them, and analysis of union membership by age shows that younger workers are having fewer and fewer interactions with unions. The percentage of unionized workers between the ages of 25 and 34 is lower than those in older cohorts, contributing to what Gavin Kelly, in reference to a similar phenomenon in the U.K., describes as a growing class of "never members." This, alongside declining confidence in unions, shows that labor has not escaped the general trend of declining trust in American institutions. "For my 19th birthday I got a union card and a wedding coat," sings Bruce Springsteen in "The River." Not anymore. In the words of David Rolf, president of SEIU Local 775, "Old Labor has not prepared its own succession plan, its own emergency kit, or its own escape pod."
Meanwhile, the increasing level of public-sector debt in the U.S. (currently about 103% of GDP), combined with (and sometimes causally related to) the liability of state pensions and benefits, will force a reckoning by public officials. While governments have been able to put off dealing with this issue in the short run, in the long run it will put more pressure on the last remaining holdout of union power — the public sector.
Continual decline in membership, inability to attract the next generation, growing distrust, and structural challenges all place significant pressure on the American labor movement to reform. But will it? As Rolf puts it, "If necessity is the mother of invention, now would be the right time for America's unions to run straight to their laboratories, workshops, incubators, and research hubs to figure out a new model of worker power for the new century." Conservatives could have a lot to contribute to this process, and a lot to gain from it.
SOLIDARITY AND LEGIBILITY
Although unions know they need to innovate, there has been little movement toward reform, and there is no clear consensus on what the right program for innovation might look like. Recent actions suggest that the labor movement believes the impetus for reform lies with the state, rather than the unions themselves. David Madland of the Center for American Progress notes that, in the matter of union revitalization, "Legal changes [to collective-bargaining structures] have to come first — unions simply aren't powerful enough right now to drive this change on their own." Labor seems to agree: America's flagship unions contributed more than $207 million to political causes in the 2016 election cycle, more than tripling the amount they spent a decade ago. The vast majority of this money went to Democratic causes and candidates.
The effort to pour more funds and activism into the centralized game of politics suggests that unions have not fully recognized the need to recapture the imagination of local communities. In a 2016 interview with Bloomberg Businessweek, AFL-CIO president Richard Trumka hinted at the possibility of a different, more community-focused approach. Recalling a major miners' strike against Pittston Coal Company in the late 1980s, Trumka said:
We won because we were able to bring the community in and say: "If hundreds of thousands of people lose their health care, it's going to be bad for your towns and your counties and your schools and your cities and your businesses." And so the community rallied around us. We had a strategy of bringing everybody into the fray. We attached ourselves to the community. Should unions be doing that? Absolutely. When we go back out and we reach our tentacles back out and we become part and parcel of the community and we speak for the community — like we do on immigration, mass incarceration, equal pay for women — when we do that, we're at our best, and we're unassailable.
But too often what seems at first to be a community-centered strategy — localizing union action, practicing a type of labor subsidiarity — reveals itself as nothing more than another angle in the same national political fight. Later in the same interview, Trumka fully revealed his hand. In response to the question of why people should unionize, he answered, "Because you have no power unless you do. When you come together, you have power. You get a more fair share of the pie that you produce." According to this line of thought, a union's involvement in the community is not really about solidarity; rather, it's a ploy for more people, more power, and more pie.
Power is inherently a part of solidarity — people are stronger when they work together — and a union without that power is not likely to thrive. But power has to come from somewhere; as a worker might say, it has to be produced. If that power is to come from solidarity, as opposed to political power simply being imposed onto the labor movement, it has to come from within the union itself, and from the characteristics that are unique to the union.
But as unions lose the spirit that comes from real unity, the organization that remains is too often used merely as a vehicle for political power. A true reckoning of the state of organized labor today has to account for just how much labor has become complicit in the drive toward "legibility," a social vision elucidated by Yale political scientist James Scott. Legibility is in many ways directly opposed to solidarity, and one of the great challenges facing labor today is its need to extract itself from collaboration with this social vision.
In his book Seeing Like a State, Scott describes legibility as a view of society, and of the persons and places within it, that "severely bracket[s]...all variables except those bearing directly" on the interests of the state and its goals of attaining revenues, security, and order. In short, the modern state would homogenize its citizens and direct them toward a single purpose: fulfilling the needs of the state. This view approaches social life in a simplified way that "ignores essential features of any real, functioning social order," which weakens the innumerable and complex associations of civil society that are vital for engendering solidarity and social cohesion. The result is always damaging to the societies on which it is imposed, functioning in a way that is "parasitic on informal processes that, alone, [the state] could not create or maintain." It makes citizens more narrow-minded, depriving them of a deeper vision of the human person and human communities.
A social vision of legibility, Scott says, requires a few conditions to be implemented fully: an "administrative ordering of nature and society"; an ideology consisting of a "muscle-bound...self-confidence about scientific and technical progress"; an "authoritarian state that is willing and able to use the full weight of its coercive power to bring" that ideology to bear on society; and "a prostrate civil society that lacks the capacity to resist these plans."
Traditionally, trade unions acted as a key element of civil society that resisted such state-driven consolidation. American unions, through the Free Trade Union Committee in particular, vigorously protested the aggressive totalitarian states that sought to impose a legible uniformity on their citizens. Memories of Lech Walesa and Solidarnosc, or of the National Union of Mineworkers and COSATU in South Africa, serve as recent and powerful examples of how unions can stand in the way of state machines that seek to undermine human dignity. Indeed, American unions distinguished themselves from their Canadian counterparts who were quiescent, or even supportive, of communist regimes around the world.
But labor's memories of those great battles have distracted it from other dangers. While the bulk of Scott's book focuses on the state, he also identifies how similar patterns can work through markets and corporations — which might have greater long-term influence in making the world more narrow and legible. "[L]arge-scale capitalism," he notes, "is just as much an agency of homogenization, uniformity, grids, and heroic simplification as the state is, with the difference being that, for capitalists, simplification must pay."
The modern self-confidence about scientific and technical progress, Scott writes, was premised on "the expansion of production, the growing satisfaction of human needs, the mastery of nature (including human nature), and, above all, the rational design of social order commensurate with the scientific understanding of natural laws." Or, more specifically, that confidence was based on an unquestioning faith that these things make us better.
The results of the Cold War showed that central, rational control by the state does not satisfy human needs well. The Soviet Union and the Khmer Rouge were very good at delivering uniformity, but they were terrible at delivering bread.
The story is more complicated when it comes to corporations. Our largest corporations (Amazon, for example) have many of the same features as the modern state — the ideological belief in progress, the willingness to break things apart to achieve a company's end, the imposition of a uniformity that would boggle the minds of central planners of yesteryear. The difference is that they deliver. And they do so with a smile; they largely obey the laws of the land and generally respond to actual human needs and desires.
But corporations don't just deliver goods. They also shape institutions and the lives of their workers in ways that promote uniformity, and unions often end up reflecting the companies they bargain with, even when it isn't in their interests. On occasion, unions will enthusiastically promote both state and corporate actions that are marked by a radical simplification of human life, a simplification that stands opposed to the complex, local associations that are necessary for solidarity. Imposing homogeneity paves the way for legibility, and legibility and solidarity do not coexist easily; forced uniformity makes solidarity difficult to maintain, as it reduces the need for the networks of support that make up a community.
Supporting such simplification does not serve the interests of unions. Take, for instance, the almost universal support among unions for significant increases in minimum-wage laws across the country. A national minimum-wage increase on the scale promoted by the AFL-CIO (gradually raising the wage to $15 in less than a decade) would impose a single wage onto the thousands of unique business and worker contexts across the country, which currently consist of highly local arrangements that take into account regional conditions and practices, and, on the shop level, the distinct circumstances of a given worker or business. This is not to say that all of these arrangements are just; it's possible that many are not. Nor is it a judgment on whether the wage increase will achieve its goal, though a recent working paper prepared for the National Bureau of Economic Research on Seattle's experience suggests that, like other legibility programs, it is likely to have deleterious effects on those it is intended to help. But replacing local agreements with a significant national increase in the minimum wage, even if it had the desired effect of raising wages without the subsequent loss of employment, would hand off the union's workplace functions to the state.
Unions have also enlisted the assistance of corporations themselves. City Journal's Steven Malanga describes a case in California where SEIU worked in concert with health-care providers to allow unionization of their facilities in return for lobbying support aimed at gaining increased Medicaid reimbursements. He notes that "employers [were] more likely to cooperate with unionization efforts, so as to build lobbying alliances for favorable government treatment." This appeared to be a win-win situation: thousands of new members for SEIU, and billions in new revenues for the nursing homes that were part of the pact. But if Illinois is a guide (where home-health-care workers who did not want to be unionized sued the state and eventually won at the U.S. Supreme Court), these top-down agreements are corrosive to unions in the long term and liable to spark a political backlash.
What both the wage and corporate-partnership efforts have in common is faith in a "big play" that will change the fate of unions without the requisite work of building the many small, social relationships that act as the strongest binding agents for voluntary associations. By prioritizing partnerships with institutions that succeed by forcing these many unique relationships into legible, homogenized forms, unions have come to resemble the corporations they purport to fight against, treating workers as interchangeable cogs rather than people. Frequent mergers and the emergence of fewer, larger unions in recent decades underscore this trend.
Similar concerns are evident in unions' approach to relations within the workplace. The ubiquity of policies such as "wage grids," which move people up pay scales based on time alone; the prioritization of seniority in industrial, educational, and health-care settings over other job considerations that might require judgment; and the use of hiring halls in construction environments that, while giving the union control over hiring, essentially commodify labor, are all evidence of just how much the modern labor movement's identity is caught up in the drive for legibility and uniformity. Ralph Chaplin, author of the union anthem "Solidarity Forever," was right to say that, "when the labor movement ceases to be a Cause and becomes a business, the end product can hardly be called progress."
David Rolf of SEIU Local 775 perfectly captured the identity crisis of the labor movement: "As nearly everyone outside the institutional labor movement has already known for years, our old unions and our old system of collective bargaining aren't coming back. The question is, rather, whether it will be replaced by something, or by nothing at all."
If today's labor leaders intend to replace the old system, they must answer some questions for themselves: What should be the intellectual and social basis for this replacement? The labor movement started and evolved within a historical ferment of ideas and hard social realities; there are plenty of hard social realities today, so does labor have any ideas? Where might the movement find the resources to reconnect labor to its roots in a cause, and what might that look like?
A RELIGIOUS REVIVAL?
Several commentators on the left have called for labor to return to religion for renewal. Specifically, they suggest that the labor movement should embrace the Catholic (and more broadly Christian) ethic of solidarity and draw inspiration from its dedication to the dignity of every individual, as labor rededicates itself to protecting worker rights and creating a community of support for every worker.
In a recent article for Commonweal, John Gehring suggests that the pontificate of "Pope Francis has opened up new space for a less hunkered-down church that encounters rather than excludes." Trumka agrees: "For the labor movement, Pope Francis's lessons of solidarity and inclusion are exactly what we need." While Gehring notes that "the U.S. hierarchy and Vatican officials enjoy a renaissance of positive relations with the labor movement," evidence for the effect of this renaissance on labor itself is scarce or nonexistent. Furthermore, attempts to begin a Catholic labor revival are in danger of being derailed by the same bad habits that plague American Catholicism (and American religion writ large) in the social sphere: namely, the tendency to consider religious issues primarily in political terms and to cherry-pick various aspects of social doctrine (generally economic ethics for the left and sexual ethics for the right).
Despite these practical shortcomings, Catholicism has a lot to offer as a source for renewal, far beyond Rerum Novarum, Pope Leo XIII's 1891 encyclical and labor-policy platform. Labor should look to the Church for inspiration: As Pope Benedict XVI noted in a 2005 encyclical, Christianity is an "encounter with an event, a person, which gives life a new horizon and a decisive direction." Americans no doubt read "life" in individualist terms. But it also applies to social life and institutions. For example, Christianity (largely due to its Jewish heritage) opened new horizons for envisioning an economy built on something other than slavery, becoming willing, in the words of Seymour Drescher, to commit "econocide" rather than allow the practice to continue. It is this horizon-opening encounter that provides the antidote to the narrowing push for legibility by both the state and markets — and the inspiration for a new dedication to solidarity and dignity.
If one of the greatest challenges to the labor movement is the modern drive for uniformity and legibility, its response will need to draw from religion as it addresses the complexity of humanity and works to form communities that recognize the value of diversity and solidarity. Pope Benedict sounded a lot like Ralph Chaplin when he stated in a 2009 encyclical, "The sharing of goods and resources, from which authentic development proceeds, is not guaranteed by merely technical progress and relationships of utility, but by the potential of love that overcomes evil with good."
Lew Daly of the think tank Demos gets closer to the point than Gehring when he notes that "religious ideas helped to expose, more than resolve, profound tensions in American liberalism around labor issues generally and the place of unions in particular. It is for this very reason, however, that they are important for new thinking about the decline of collective bargaining, if not for reviving it in the future."
What is unique in Daly's analysis of religion and labor is his recognition that, to catalyze the revival of labor unions, labor must reacquaint itself with religious sources and explore "the authority of the ‘social faith' we inherit from the great religious forebears." He is asking the American labor movement, in a time of transition and change, to become Janus-faced — not in the sense of being hypocritical, but of finding an ability to look backward so as to see the path forward more clearly, and also to look beyond the institution of labor unions in particular to see the broader social context in which labor's troubles arose. Labor's think tanks and researchers might find better returns from reading Heath Carter's Union Made — which tells the history of the rise of social Christianity in Chicago at the turn of the century — and contemporary papal social encyclicals than from their continuing investments in politics.
What they will find there is less a silver bullet than a reacquaintance with the idea that solidarity is a type of "social charity," an extension not just of a useful partnership to achieve a material end — the vision implied by most of labor's rhetoric today — but of a deeper vision of the human person. Solidarity understood in these terms can't be satisfied by a "more people, more pie" mentality. If unions want to revive solidarity, they must first understand that solidarity without a deeper, religious conception of the whole person is likely to be as stunted as a vision that sees workers as commodities. In his apostolic exhortation Evangelii Gaudium, Pope Francis notes the possibility of this integrated vision, and how strange it appears to today's divided society:
Despite the tide of secularism which has swept our societies, in many countries — even those where Christians are a minority — the Catholic Church is considered a credible institution by public opinion, and trusted for her solidarity and concern for those in greatest need. Again and again, the Church has acted as a mediator in finding solutions to problems affecting peace, social harmony, the land, the defence of life, human and civil rights, and so forth. And how much good has been done by Catholic schools and universities around the world! This is a good thing. Yet, we find it difficult to make people see that when we raise other questions less palatable to public opinion, we are doing so out of fidelity to precisely the same convictions about human dignity and the common good.
If labor wants a revival, it might start with asking itself three of those "other questions less palatable to public opinion."
The first of these questions must be whether the labor movement still considers itself to be pro-family. Labor unions used to be socially conservative institutions. As Andrew Cherlin notes in his book Labor's Love Lost, the labor movement in the U.S. once understood that intact families were an integral part of the economic success of the American working class, so much so that it advocated not for living wages for individuals but for family wages — wages that could support a family. While he rightly notes that this focus often led to policies that placed barriers in front of women who wished to enter the paid workforce, he also shows that the generally "pro-family" slant of the labor movement was instrumental in the economic success of the working class. Put differently, labor recognized the importance of an integrated communitarianism.
Today, that vision has disintegrated as labor has fully embraced the left's preoccupation with identity politics and sexual liberation, rather than advocating for strong families and communities. As labor has shifted leftward on social issues, more and more evidence has shown that the key to educational and economic success is the stable, two-parent family — not an obsessive focus on individual identity and liberation. An additional concern is the widening class divide in marriage: According to recent research by W. Bradford Wilcox and Wendy Wang, just 26% of poor Americans age 18 to 55 and 39% of working-class Americans are currently married, compared to 56% of middle- and upper-class Americans. Despite this widespread problem hampering the success of a majority of their constituents, labor unions have abandoned their promotion of intact families among the working class in favor of a focus on liberal orthodoxy.
For labor unions to revive themselves, they must reinvest in the strong families that are so important for the economic success of workers. They could start by shifting resources away from national campaigns on issues like the minimum wage and toward policies that address the challenges faced by young families. Unions could push for fair-scheduling practices that account for the rhythms of normal family life. In industries like food service and retail, for example, unpredictable work schedules can make child-care arrangements exceedingly difficult, in addition to harming marital stability and inhibiting workers from attending church and being active members of their communities. This is exactly the kind of challenge that a properly community- and member-focused union is designed to address.
A second difficult question that must be addressed is whether unions really do value the concerns of local workers more than national politics. AFL-CIO president Trumka was right to note in the 2016 interview that power comes when "we become part and parcel of the community and we speak for the community." But which community? The story of labor in recent decades is one of institutional power that has been increasingly centralized in organizations further away from most local communities. Given the finite amount of resources available to unions, it appears that they value the national over the local and the political over the needs of their members.
Fixing this, and replacing these practices with a new type of institutional subsidiarity that would make unions part and parcel of their communities, would take a total rethinking of their current structure. It would require unions to transfer their power and resources away from large-scale social unionism — projects at the national or state level aimed at more than just union members — and toward issues at the local level. All that lobbying money would pay for hundreds if not thousands of front-line staffers who could assist members (and even those who are not unionized) who face challenges in the workplace. Such a program would not only be expensive but would also take a great deal of work. It should not surprise us that unions have chosen politics — which is comparatively easy and efficient — rather than the tough slog of dealing with the scheduling issues of workers in many workplaces.
The third sensitive question that unions must ask themselves is whether they have a sufficiently "thick" concept of work. As labor has gradually moved away from its religious influences, it has lost a conception of work that is rooted in the fundamental dignity of the worker created in God's image. Surveying most union constitutions and their webpages leads one to conclude that unions believe in the same things that everyone else believes in: the importance of decent work, decent wages, and the like. But this vision of work that forms the basis for today's collective bargaining is deficient. It focuses on instrumentality, reducing workers to mere commodities, valuable only insofar as they increase productivity for their employers. The union's understanding of the purpose of work looks oddly similar to the view usually attributed to management. Talbot Brewer's description of the working lives of knowledge workers could be applied equally to unions:
This instrumentalization of our capabilities goes hand-in-hand with the social choice to maximize consumption of goods and services. They are two sides of the same coin. Considered in the collective, we can maximize our consumption powers only by maximizing our productivity, and we can do this only if we make an unreserved investment of time, mental energy, and self-formative capacities in enhancing our value as employable commodities....In our capacity as consumers, we are encouraged to be undisciplined hedonists, and in our capacity as workers, we are required to be fastidiously self-controlled. We are to be organization men by day and pleasure-seekers by night.
The notion that a labor union might have something to say not just about how much money you should make for your work but what work should be sounds foreign today, but that is only because a vacant proceduralism in labor negotiations has become the norm. Labor's membership rates will continue to decline until it offers a compelling vision of work.
America's neighbor to the north provides an instructive example for how labor unions can flourish by rediscovering a more meaningful vision of work. The Christian Labour Association of Canada (CLAC), which was officially recognized by labor boards only after a ruling by the Ontario Supreme Court in 1963, presents itself as an organization "based on Christian values of respect, dignity, and fairness for everyone in the workplace" and "committed to building better workplaces, better communities, and better lives." Workers have responded positively to the message. CLAC now has more than 60,000 members, making it Canada's eighth-largest private-sector union.
THE CHURCH AND THE UNION HALL
A rejuvenated labor movement that focuses anew on solidarity and subsidiarity is not likely to materialize in the next decade. The cultural — in addition to the political and economic — forces behind union decline in America have taken years to develop, and positive change is likely to take just as long. But those who care about the state of organized labor in this country might rest assured knowing that, for all of the failures, the seeds of union renewal are present.
Trumka hinted at this not only when he mentioned the power of the community but when he noted the independence of the two other institutions in the company town: "Everything [was] owned by the company save church and union hall." In line with that vision, perhaps labor will have to experience a tightening similar to that which Father Joseph Ratzinger (later Pope Benedict), in a radio address in 1969, suggested will happen with the Church:
She will become small and will have to start afresh more or less from the beginning. She will no longer be able to inhabit many of the edifices she built in prosperity. As the number of her adherents diminishes, so will she lose many of her social privileges. In contrast to an earlier age, she will be seen much more as a voluntary society, entered only by free decision. As a small society, she will make much bigger demands on the initiative of her individual members....It will make her poor and cause her to become the Church of the meek. The process will be all the more arduous, for sectarian narrow-mindedness as well as pompous self-will will have to be shed. One may predict that all of this will take time....But when the trial of this sifting is past, a great power will flow from a more spiritualized and simplified Church.
A smaller, simpler, and less socially prominent labor movement can regain its power over time by embracing a new vision of solidarity and subsidiarity: one that evinces a belief in the inherent dignity of the worker created in God's image, and that eschews national politics in order to address the needs of diverse local associations and their workers. Much will be required of the workers themselves, for the new bonding agent for labor in America will be found in the place that birthed the movement in the beginning: the hard work and sacrifice of its members.