In Praise of Unions—Both Liberals and Conservatives Are Wrong: Collective Bargaining Does Promote the Common Good

Unions are in a rather odd position today. Once the subject of intense controversy, they have become one of the few things about which both conservatives and liberals generally agree. And, as the common view has it, there is precious little about unions worth praising.

As conservatives tend to think and to speak of them, unions are economic institutions, plain and simple, whose main purpose is to exact higher wages for fewer hours than the market would otherwise permit. Unions accomplish this goal through acting as cartels, i.e. they function as alliances of resource suppliers whose control over job opportunities permits them to influence the outcomes of the market process in favor of their members. By so impeding the functioning of the market, conservatives frequently argue, unions decrease overall social welfare by imposing costs that everyone else has to bear.

These costs assume a variety of forms. Unions, as their critics point out, tend to be more prevalent in sectors of the economy where productivity and income are naturally high. By altering the wage structure, unions induce firms to hire fewer workers. This results in too much labor being employed in the lower-paid sectors of the economy where the least-skilled service occupations tend to predominate. The gains enjoyed by the “barons of labor” (who were relatively well-off to begin with) come primarily at the expense of the nonunionized. Thus, their critics often argue, unions increase inequalities in the distribution of income. Moreover, through work rules and other restrictions they impose, unions also lower the productivity of labor and capital. In all, as many conservatives see it, unions leave all but their members less well-off by obstructing the most efficient allocation and use of resources.

Whether—and the extent to which—this picture of the economic impact of unions is accurate remains a subject of debate among professional economists, and at least one recent, major empirical study has called much of it into question. But, a negative opinion of unions is hardly unique to conservatives and free-market advocates. Liberals themselves increasingly have come to regard unions as archaic left-overs of an earlier era whose value (to the extent it existed) has long since passed.

The standard liberal critique of unions is founded on the view that majorities pose a constant threat to individuals and their rights and cannot be trusted. Thus, many liberals are as profoundly skeptical of unions as they are of legislatures and other institutions of majority rule, and for the same reason. In this view, individuals are safest when insulated from the venalities and biases that majoritarian institutions so frequently express. Consequently, as this framework has it, functions traditionally performed by autonomous employee associations (unions) can be undertaken more reliably and equitably by some arm of the state.

Thus, for example, disputes over employee discharges—which in the unionized setting typically are adjusted through a private grievance arbitration process that the union and the employer jointly administer—are seen by many liberals as better adjudicated before courts or state administrative boards. Similarly, other aspects of the employment relationship are regarded as being more fairly and effectively established through uniform, statutorily set standards than is possible when they are privately arranged through the terms of a union contract. In this view, fairness is a function of procedure, the formality and regularity of which the state best can guarantee. Indeed, as many liberals see it, the union movement itself simply represents a sort of historical way station in the evolving recognition of rights that majorities may not infringe.

The distrust of majority rule that underlies many liberals’ misgivings about unions also describes the point at which the views of left and right often converge. Like their liberal colleagues, many conservatives, particularly those with a libertarian orientation, also distrust majorities. Though their starting points differ, their jointly-held suspicion about majoritarian institutions frequently leads liberals and conservatives to the same conclusions. Thus, left and right alike condemn unions on the same grounds they sometimes employ to argue that the judiciary’s power to review and overturn legislation is necessary if individual rights are to be protected. Government through non-representative institutions, they agree, is safer and more stable than reliance upon majority rule. What chiefly separates them, of course, are the types of policies they think these non-representative bodies (primarily courts) should adopt. Skepticism about the capacity of the common person to exercise reason and self-restraint joins many on the right and left in the view that democracy itself is a utopian ideal.

In the popular mind, unions do not seem to fare much better. The idea of a union not infrequently tends to be vaguely associated with Archie Bunker characters and cartoon versions of autocratic and possibly corrupt “boss” leadership. To many, unions as institutions seem a feature of smokestack industries, and thus appear inappropriate to the needs of the (hopefully envisioned) high-tech economy of the future. These views seem to be borne out in union membership trends. Though the reasons for it are complex and controversial, the fact is that private sector unionism has been in decline since the mid-1950s. Today, in the private sector, unions lose more than half of the elections to which employees are asked to vote to signify their desire for representation.

Democracy in Law

Despite the growing congruence of views about their worth, the Church in its social teaching continues to express enthusiastic support for unions. Is this yet another (embarrassing) instance where the Church has arrived on the scene breathless, both out of step and more than a bit out of touch? In a word: no. The Church’s concern about unions is one Catholics—and especially conservative Catholics—should share. This is so for at least three reasons.

First, unions and the practice of bargaining can provide an important support for the maintenance of political democracy. To understand how this is so, it is necessary to understand something about the nature of collective bargaining.

As people tend to think of it, collective bargaining is simply a process through which wage and benefit rates are set. While this is a part—and an important part—of collective bargaining, it hardly captures its essence. Collective bargaining is best understood as a private law-making system. As the Supreme Court has described it, the collective bargaining agreement is “more than a contract; it is a generalized code” which represents “an effort to erect a system of industrial self-government” through which the employment relationship may be “governed by an agreed-upon rule of law.”

This rule is one that the parties alone are responsible for promulgating and administering. And it is in the activity of deciding the character and application of this rule that the importance of collective bargaining rests. For it is through their involvement in the process that average citizens can become engaged in deciding the law that most directly determines the details of their daily lives. Thus, unions and the practice of collective bargaining can act as schools for democracy where the habits of self-governance and direct responsibility are instilled.

Sharing in decisions on matters like eligibility for promotions and advanced training, education and health benefits, the discipline of fellow employees or the most fair way to handle a novel employment matter, may appear to lack the cachet that attaches to Supreme Court decisions or to legislative elections. But, it is a mistake to regard such issues as too mundane for serious attention. As Tocqueville so clearly understood, individuals and society alike become self-governing only through repeatedly and regularly engaging in acts of self-government. It is when a people no longer have direct responsibility for making the day-to-day decisions about the order of their lives, Tocqueville correctly warned, that a democracy encounters the greatest danger of becoming perverted.

As things now stand, the town meeting, the neighborhood ward, grassroots political clubs, and the other local institutions that once characterized American democracy have largely disappeared. Though often overlooked, unions are one institution that can stand in their stead as a means for direct citizen involvement in the activities of self-governance. Collective bargaining represents the only alternative to the pervasive state regulation of a primary social relationship—the relationship of employment. It is no coincidence that as the practice of collective bargaining has declined, the state, through legislation and the judiciary, has assumed an increasingly prominent role in employment relations issues. In a society in which one’s job is generally both a primary form of wealth and a determinant of status, the significance of direct citizen involvement in deciding the law of employment cannot be discounted.

Unions have another characteristic important to the habits that sustain a democracy. They are autonomous associations, independent of the government and of the institutions on which their members are economically reliant. Consequently, the activities unions undertake, whether at the workplace or in the form of the many (and often unnoticed) social welfare programs unions sponsor, occur as a result of self-decision and self-organization. Thus, unions can help to overcome the sorts of indifference and unthinking dependence that corrode the habits of self-direction on which democracy is based. By mediating the relationship between employees, the state, and their employers, unions also act to diffuse the power these institutions exercise over individuals. In so doing, unions serve to enhance individual status.

Moral Consensus

If it is to be successful, the course of action a union follows on any matter is dependent upon the “rank and file” having reached a consensus about it. Like any group decision, such consensus represents the product of a discussion. The opportunities unions provide to engage people in such discussions is another achievement Catholics should especially value.

By providing a forum to discuss, deliberate over, and decide what is to be done here and now about practical affairs, unions can involve people both in an inquiry into, and in the development of, a rational consensus over what ought to be valued and why. Such discussions truly are normative, and participation in them engages people in the most distinctly human of activities: reflection and choice. What is so crucial about such discussions is that they require people to decide for themselves the kind of people they will be. In a society increasingly dominated by large institutions and in which opinions are so pervasively shaped by the media, such opportunities are indeed rare. Their occurrence also provide the opening for something almost wholly excluded from our public life: the explicit discussion of and reliance upon the participants’ religious beliefs in settling on the course of action to take.

The primacy of persons as intelligent and reasonable, free and responsible is, of course, an important part of the Church’s teachings. Because we have minds, we have the freedom—and the awesome responsibility—to choose what it is we will make of ourselves. Consequently, it is left to each of us to work out our own salvation “in fear and trembling,” as we choose to accept or to reject the way of Christ and the gifts of grace freely offered to us all. The prerequisite to making such elections is to realize that there are choices to be made. It is through dialogue that we are introduced to the existence and the nature of these questions and to the ramifications of our choices to pursue or to avoid them.

In short, the human voice is normative. As Aristotle points out in the Politics, while the utterances of other types of animals are restricted to expressions of pleasure or pain, human conversation exhibits some apprehension of the good and the hurtful, the just and the less desirable. Typical of human discussion about needs or things wished for is the effort to justify them by reference to some hierarchy of values and notions of fairness. As humans, our potential for authentic self-rule comes through our involvement in such conversations.

The centrality of what the classics called a civilis conversatio to our moral self-understanding is a constant theme of, the Church’s teachings. Its recognition forms the core of Pope John Paul II’s encyclical On Human Work where he insists on the importance of unions and insightfully points out the function they can perform in fostering authentic human development.

Some notion of the normative potential of the types of conversations unions can and have provoked explains part of the reason that many liberals and conservatives alike distrust unions. Recognition of this potential of grassroots conversations about ordering also seems partially to explain the present furor over the Supreme Court’s recent Webster decision on abortion. The possible “return” of the abortion issue to legislatures, many commentators have suggested, would be “too divisive”; therefore, the “resolution” of the question of abortion by the Court’s 1973 decision in Roe v. Wade should be left to stand. The real, though unspoken, concern of many of these commentators seems to be that a discussion that does not purport to be “value-free” may actually occur—and who knows where that might lead?

A third reason that Catholics should care about the fate of unions pertains to the general dissolution of mediating groups as a whole. No single “mediating structure,” whether in the form of families, religious congregations, neighborhoods, civic organizations and service associations, or unions, is likely to survive in the absence of other such bodies. All of them require and can inculcate the same habits: decision, commitment, self-rule, and direct responsibility. When people lose these habits, no single institution alone can restore them. In brief, the existence and decline of such bodies is mutually conditioning; the loss or deformation of any one of them threatens the rest.

It may be objected that the view of unions set forth is, at best, an optimistic one. To some degree, this criticism is true. My point is not to argue that every aspect of unions or their various practices is good. Humans have an almost infinite capacity to make mistakes, and unions are human institutions—but they are also institutions with an immense transformative potential for the human good. We can cynically overlook this potential, but we would put too much at risk if we did so. It is more responsible to re-imagine what unions are—and can become. As present-day events in Poland demonstrate, the results of such an effort can be remarkable, indeed.


  • Thomas C. Kohler

    Professor Kohler writes extensively about domestic and comparative labor and employment law issues; mediating institutions; and theories of civil society and personhood. He teaches a variety of labor and employment law courses as well as Foundations of Western Law at Boston University. In 1995-96 he was at the J.W. Goethe Universitat in Frankfurt. Among his most recent publications is "Decentralizing Industrial Relations: The American Situation and its Significance in Comparative Perspective" in Decentraling Industrial Relations and the Role of Labour Unions and Employee Representatives, edited by Roger Blanpain (Kluwer Law International, 2007.)

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