The Joy of Sex, the Pangs of Labour
There's potential for an unlikely romance between workers' rights and family values
In our last print edition of Comment, I suggested that social conservatives who care about marriage should also care about labour, particularly organized labour. My suggestion might seem controversial if you’re prone to thinking that organized labour and advocates for family are like two ships who only give each other full broadsides in public debate. I mean, could you picture Dr. James Dobson marching on the National Mall alongside Richard Trumka singing “Solidarity Forever”? Could you even conceive of a time when Hassan Yussuff and Andrea Mrozek might hold hands in front of the Centennial Flame?
I couldn’t. Or, rather, I could, but it makes me laugh out loud.
In other words, my suggestion that “social conservationists should start with labour” in their attempts to sustain a culture that supports healthy marriages ignores the extent to which the cultures of labour and family advocates have developed in opposition to each other over the years. Readers—heck, even my editor-in-chief—might accuse me of advocating for social reform as if history doesn’t matter.
You’d be right to do so. The recent history of both groups suggests that the odds of this happening anytime soon are highly unlikely for a number of reasons. To greater or lesser degrees both the labour movement and the pro-family movement have been content to sew seams into their public discourse and basic philosophy which tug against each other.
To start, the labour movement has bought wholesale the idea that you can be a libertarian when it comes to sex and a communitarian when it comes to economics. That is, the mores and cultural practices underpinning laws and institutions that protect the working class and organized labour have nothing to do—in fact, should have nothing to do—with the mores and cultural practices supporting a particular sexual ethic of monogamy. The fact that the breakdown of cultural mores supporting one community (families) might have implications for another (unions) is often ignored or downplayed. And that this is often intentional—indeed, some parts of the labour movement have been leaders in this cause—is both ironic and sad in its ignorance of the human condition. Trade unions today make no comment about the type of relationships that will help their members thrive in their work, and some are even willing to advocate for the extreme end of sexual libertarianism. The support of CUPE for the legalization of prostitution—the commodification of sex—is simply the final step on the road of an amoral approach to sex that the labour movement’s been walking for a long time. Now, in one sense this is appropriate since it’s not the place of a trade union rep to moralize about who’s sleeping with whom. Heaven knows nobody wants Jimmy Hoffa in their bedroom. And yet, at the same time, a trade union which fails to recognize and promote the fact that certain habits and structures are more conducive to the economic well-being of its members fails its members as a trade union. The fact that the arguments used to support such things as prostitution are eerily similar to those used to normalize the payday loan industry should give any union leader cause for pause. There’s also a sheer pragmatism related to this: any trade union rep will tell you that members who are going through family breakups or are living with the challenges of trying to maintain a single-parent family are members who take up an inordinate amount of a business agent’s attention. Addressing those issues will free up time and energy better spent on growth or development.
But the family movement also bears some responsibility. The movement focuses too often on inter-marital support (pro-marriage tips here) and, at least until recently, moralism in public debates. But there has been little attention given to the material context which can support or undermine a marriage. And I think it’s fair to say that, at least on the evangelical side, there is a decidedly strong impulse towards a culture of economic libertarianism which can run contrary to their support for the community of family and marriage. James St. Baptist church in Hamilton took labour seriously in the 1900s. Somewhere along the way it dropped that concern. Now it’s a condo building.
But nevertheless the data suggests—here, here, and here, to highlight just a few—that there is a strong case to be made for a détente between the two sides. Perhaps marriage advocates and labour advocates might find their causes furthered if they worked together instead of against each other, as has so often been the case.
The question is: What would it take to make that détente happen? What changes might each movement need to make to turn my proposal from something laughable to something imaginable?
Détente is a diplomatic concept and really it is diplomacy that is needed. The beginnings of a full recognition of the possibility of mutual support between union advocates and marriage advocates will only be possible if both parties are willing to engage in a type of diplomatic exploration with each other. Here’s a rough and very basic sketch of what I think is needed for this diplomacy to begin.
That diplomatic exploration should start with a research hotline. If the parties have too much to risk by being seen with one another in public, perhaps they could begin by reading the data on the benefits of each other’s programs to each other behind closed doors. There’s lots of it: take it and read!
From there, both parties should explore ways in which they might highlight—in their literature, in their public messages, in their communications and training with members and advocates—the benefits of each other’s work. Perhaps, one day down the road, we might imagine a partnership between IMFC and the CLC which helps unions support their members’ marriages. The recent rise of mobile work in Canada has led the construction industry to recognize that this is an issue that requires attention. It’s time for the rest of labour to get on board.
But for even these basic suggestions to be plausible, both groups need to be willing to compromise a little bit. And I’m not suggesting that either side necessarily give up anything other than the mutual suspicion and distrust. That is likely to lead to, to paraphrase Reagan, a one-way street that each party uses to pursue its own aims. Rather, what is needed is a willingness to bracket certain parts of each other’s program in order to focus upon the things that meet each other’s respective goals.
Unions want to improve the lives of working class families? They should begin by considering the fact that it takes certain habits and mores—it takes families—to have a working class. Marriage advocates want to strengthen marriages? They should begin by considering the difficulty of maintaining a marriage in the face of poverty or uncertain employment, and should recognize the role that unions can play in mitigating these things. These considerations need not mean a full stop to advocacy efforts on any given policy front presently at play in each other’s program. Rather, it can introduce new considerations which might, over time, begin to influence how those programs are shaped and communicated.
None of these things are likely to end up with a pro-family-labour gathering on Parliament or Capitol Hill, but maybe—just maybe—it can be the start of the establishment of full relations.Subscribe