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The Cardus Daily

An Engagement with Acton on Right to Work

Brian Dijkema  |  December 14, 2012  |  Business, Industrial Relations, Vocation

Michigan is now a right to work state. Let the market rejoice, and let unions weep and gnash their teeth. Let prognosticators wait a few minutes before prophesying.

The legislation gives workers covered by a collective agreement in their workplace the option of membership (and subsequent dues payments) in the union responsible for negotiating that agreement. Needless to say, the debate around this law has been heated; so heated that multiple rules of engagement were broken in the span of minutes. In one case, a union thug sucker punched a muckraking journalist while another threatened to murder him with a gun. The pacific Jim Hoffa suggested that “there will be repercussions” as a result of the legislation. It’s safe to say that this is not the type of “brotherly union and concord” that the Book of Common Prayer seeks from workers. Nor is it the type of behaviour which lends strength to public arguments in favour of the union movement.

Given the heat, it’s no wonder that dialogue on the legislation is a public wasteland. But, if you look hard enough, you can find some intelligent and thoughtful contributions to the public debate. A few pieces from the Acton Institute do just that.

A helpful piece by Jordan Ballor suggests that right to work legislation disestablishes unions from the state.

What we need is the separation of Union and State in the way that we have historically had free churches. We need to disestablish labor in the same way that we have disestablished religion in America, while simultaneously protecting the right to organize and join a union as well as the right to worship and express our religious convictions.

While he doesn’t say as much, one gets the hint that such a separation is as much for the protection of union health as it is for the health of the state. Here Ballor’s argument is analogous to that made by the late Richard John Neuhaus. For Fr. Neuhaus, no-establishment is aimed at the vitality of the church and protection of human dignity, not at keeping religion out of politics. As Fr. Neuhaus says,

The question is the access, indeed the full and unencumbered participation, of men and women, of citizens, who bring their opinions, sentiments, convictions, prejudices, visions, and communal traditions of moral discernment to bear on our public deliberation of how we ought to order our life together in this experiment that aspires toward representative democracy.

Unions themselves are harmed by the use of legal coercion of workers to join their movement, just as religious institutions (such as, say, the Lutheran churches in Scandinavia) are ultimately harmed by establishment. The reason for this is that unions are, by their nature, voluntary associations of mutual support and solidarity, and not political organs.

North American unions are sick, and one of the leading causes of this is their failure to properly address the ground level work of their members in favour of heavy lobbying efforst; efforts which rely on the financial goods brought to them by the state.

But voices like Acton’s routinely fail to critically engage the implications of voluntarism in the workplace. They note that papal writing in support of unions came at a time when workers were literally starving for work and justice and that we need to remember this when we use papal encyclicals in support of unionism in the twenty first century. Fair enough, but surely it is incumbent upon them to do the same for the concept of voluntarism in an individualist age which deems “choice” to be the ultimate end, while at the same time seeing trends which suggest all is not well for the working man in America. If atomism is corrosive in family life and other social spheres might it not also be true for the world of labour relations? Why, for instance, is their analysis on ways to increase the ability of workers to choose better between existing unions, and to organize better unions, so thin? Why such a cursory treatment of the continued papal support for unions? Why the embrace of “choice” in the workplace lauded so loudly in a cultural context in which choice in other areas of life has proven so corrosive? Yes, choice enables economic growth, but might it also encourage an individualist view of the workplace which neglects the communal dimensions of work and its impact on family and society? Might they be neglecting the potential pitfalls of a power imbalance between powerful companies and individual workers? The fact that this is not a new complaint suggests the need for deeper analysis of labour law regimes in Michigan and elsewhere.

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