Trickle Down and Bottom Up

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By Stephen P. White

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The Catholic Church has been a great supporter of labor and trade unions almost since they first emerged in the nineteenth century. Partly thanks to the American bishops’ input, Leo XIII described the roles of labor unions in his 1891 encyclical Rerum Novarum. Founded upon the natural right of free association, unions, at their best, embody the kind of social cooperation that fosters solidarity and builds lasting communities.

At their best, labor unions are models of the principle of subsidiarity: creating and maintaining an inhabitable space between the individual and the necessarily coercive action of the state. At their best, unions remind us that markets, however necessary and useful, must serve man, never the other way round. At their best, unions remind us that labor is not just another commodity but a vocation; through his work, man participates in God’s work of creation.

Unions remind us that individual gain and private interest are radically insufficient to build strong and meaningful communities. Unions provide stability for families by helping to ensure sufficient income and meaningful benefits for breadwinners. Unions, at their best, serve, promote, and uphold the common good.

But what happens when unions are not at their best? When they cross the line between acting as a check on capricious labor markets and become parasitic upon the very companies that provide their workers’ livelihoods? Or when unions ally with government, trading workers’ dues for political patronage and running roughshod over the principle of subsidiarity; become factious and partisan, trading solidarity in the community for lock-step conformity among the union rank and file; stop serving the interests of workers so much as the interests of union bosses and the politicians in their pockets; violate the rights of free association in favor of intimidation and even violence in pursuit of their ends?

What happens when unions become corrosive to the common good?

Everything good and bad just mentioned about unions could be said or asked of many other institutions as well, including businesses.

Justice applies to both sides of every transaction. Take the example of a just wage. The fact that a wage is agreed upon by both employer and employee does not make it just. A worker who takes a job doing hard labor for a dollar a day with no bathroom breaks may be agreeing to the terms of that employment, but that doesn’t make the compensation just. Likewise, a company may agree to a collective bargaining agreement that jeopardizes the firm’s long term viability in the face of union demands, but that doesn’t make the agreement just. Unions are no more immune from injustice than are the companies and corporations that employ union workers.

The occasion for injustice is greatly expanded, for both businesses and unions, when government patronage is added to the equation. Everyone knows that big business funnels millions of dollars into the campaign coffers of politicians of both parties. What is less often talked about is that labor unions spend more – far more, in fact – on political contributions than any big business or industrial lobby. (See these charts.)

While it is not hard to imagine why these groups spend so much money – labor unions alone spent more than $144 million on campaign contributions and lobbying in 2010 according to the Center for Responsive Politics – it is hard to imagine how this is good for our democracy. Unions, like businesses, are very aware of the return they get on their investments. The way unions and businesses spend their money suggests that they find lobbying the politicians they help get elected to be more cost effective than collective bargaining with a determined opponent.

All of which brings us back to the principles of Catholic social teaching.

When legislation and government regulation become the primary means of “arbitration” between business and labor interests, government has overstepped its bounds to the detriment of subsidiarity. When this state of affairs comes about at the behest of businesses and unions themselves – a sort of labor law arms race – both business lobbies and unions share culpability.

Subsidiarity is not about exercising power at the lowest possible level so much as it is about locating responsibility in its proper place. In other words, subsidiarity can be violated from the “bottom up” as well as from the “top down.” If citizens – or businesses or labor unions – fail in their social obligations, then some other institution must pick up the slack. Usually, this means the state. But this always carries with it the real danger that, as the state takes on more and more of society’s unmet obligations, society will atrophy and grow dependent, making an already difficult situation even worse.

As Pope Benedict XVI wrote in Caritas in Veritate: “The principle of subsidiarity must remain closely linked to the principle of solidarity and vice versa, since the former without the latter gives way to social privatism, while the latter without the former gives way to paternalist social assistance that is demeaning to those in need.” (Original emphasis.)

Those conservatives who worry that “paternalist social assistance” on the part of the state is a clear and present danger to this country should also be concerned that labor unions – as well as businesses – are failing in their obligations to social solidarity, without which “top down” subsidiarity is impossible. Progressives who worry about a rise in “social privatism” might do well to spend less time pushing programs for trickle-down solidarity and pay more attention to the businesses – as well as unions – that willingly violate subsidiarity from the bottom up.

A complex lesson, but one much needed this Labor Day.

Stephen P. White is a fellow in the Catholic Studies Program at the Ethics and Public Policy Center in Washington, D.C. and the coordinator of the Tertio Millennio Seminar on the Free Society. The views expressed here are strictly his own.

This article first appeared on “The Catholic Thing” (www.thecatholicthing.org), copyright 2011, all rights reserved.