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Catholics and Collective Bargaining

May 13, 2022 | 2,564 words | Economics, Politics, Religion

It always fascinates me when successful, fiscally conservative Catholics express an unbridled distain for organized labor on ideological grounds. To hear them tell it, unions are nothing but an affront to individual liberty and self-determination, two hallmarks of the American lexicon.

These folks hold fast to an unshakeable belief in the effectiveness of an unregulated free market to determine appropriate wage rates and compensation packages. If someone is unhappy with the terms of their employment, such as what they are being paid, they are free to seek work elsewhere. This is the conventional wisdom espoused by libertarians. And all successful, fiscally-conservative Catholics are libertarian at heart.

Because our free-wheeling economy generates so much opportunity, freedom of movement is all a libertarian asks of an economic system. Since they enjoy considerable leverage on the job, and have attractive options should they choose to leave, “freedom” is the only other ingredient required to ensure their continued prosperity. They don’t need or want a third party in the picture, as that would only impede their ambition.

But not everyone who works for a living has such options. In fact, most people who toil for their daily bread lack anything even remotely resembling leverage at their place of employment. They experience a dearth of alternatives should they decide to leave, or be unceremoniously let go.


Economists are fond of touting the steady increase in living standards enjoyed by average citizens since 1800, offering this as proof we live in the best of all possible worlds. But access to a wide array of cheap consumer goods doesn’t guarantee happiness or provide meaning. Nor has it changed the basic rules of economic engagement, which remain an ethical free-for-all. The Darwinian nature of our economic life favors the clever and the advantaged. And let’s give those go-getters credit, for they have made the most of the opportunity.

But all those who are not quite as clever, and not so advantaged, are left to go begging when it comes to receiving equitable compensation for their efforts. To say nothing of having a voice in how business policies are developed and implemented. The run-of-the-mill employee is given very little consideration at work. Being passed over in this way tends to negatively impact one’s inherent sense of dignity.

The struggle for dignity and a decent wage is as old as time. It’s a puzzle we as a society have not yet fully solved, despite the dramatic uptick in living standards since 1800. And we’ve fallen into the familiar habit of discussing the problem in strictly binary terms, as either a liberal or conservative issue. This is not bringing us any closer to a satisfactory resolution.


Not all successful Catholics are fiscally conservative, and not all who oppose organized labor do so on ideological grounds. Some have first-hand experience with labor unions, and have grown weary of their influence based on up-close, personal interaction.

When such friends hear me support the concept of collective bargaining, they frequently assume their rough-and-tumble exchanges with union types trumps what they take to be my naïve, pie-in-the-sky assumptions. But my position on this subject is based on much more than assumptions. I have been a union-affiliated contractor in the construction trades for going on 25 years now.

I agree with critics who say there is a lot not to like about the current state of organized labor. Union leadership often comes into negotiations with a huge chip on its shoulder, wanting to fight over every stupid little line item in the contract. They almost seem to disagree just to be disagreeable.

To which I say: If you had your head kicked in for the last one hundred and fifty years, you might be a little combative entering a negotiation, too.

And one also can’t help noticing how union leadership often lacks any semblance of real leadership ability. They’ve usually risen through the ranks, which is generally a good thing. But even the most enthusiastic line worker or local organizer needs to be coached up at some point, to avoid finding himself or herself in over their heads.

On the other hand, critics of organized labor should be willing to admit unions are not solely responsible for the “us-versus- them” mentality that seems to hang over every labor negotiation like a death pall. Ownership too often enters these negotiations with one overriding objective in mind: to give their lower tier production people as little as possible.

Today’s labor unions can be faulted for all of the above. But their obvious flaws should not disqualify them from consideration. Unions still have the potential to serve as a much-needed counter-balance. They can help our free-market society take major strides in the direction of economic justice.


My point here is simply this: The theory behind collective bargaining and organized labor is still sound, even if the actual practice of today’s unions leaves a lot to be desired. Rather than continuing to criticize union leadership as being stuck in the Dark Ages, may I suggest an alternative to the successful Catholic business advocate?

Ownership and management could be a lot more transparent with the rank-and-file, and take a more collaborative approach in its planning and execution. Making people feel they are more than interchangeable parts might go a long way toward easing tensions at contract time. This will require a major re-think, along with a serious re-allocation of resources, in order to change a given corporation’s culture. Just referring to employees as “associates” and hanging a few inspirational posters in hallways and break rooms will not get it done.

Ownership should also be prepared to extend profit-sharing to its line workers, instead of treating them as an afterthought who should be content with crumbs from the table. This, too, will require buy-in on the part of upper management and investors.

And consider this: What if a wave of successful, fiscally conservative Catholics were to switch sides, so to speak. What if a few of these die-hard libertarians were to dedicate themselves to the cause of economic justice and join the union movement. Their management savvy could help union regulars steer things in a more enlightened and collaborative direction.


How today’s “conservative” or “traditional” or “orthodox” Catholics became outspoken critics of organized labor on ideological grounds, when their parents or grandparents were once staunch union supporters, is tale that’s been told many times.

The popular scenario has the conversion starting with the Democratic embrace of legalized abortion after the Supreme Court’s Roe v. Wade decision of 1973. A generation of devout working-class Catholics, along with their now upwardly-mobile cousins, signed on as “Regan Democrats” in the presidential election of 1980. The Republicans had staked their claim to being “the party of life” as a strategic demographic move, just in the nick of time.

This is the conventional narrative we are all familiar with. But the corruption of the Catholic mind, away from economic justice in favor of economic freedom, was in the works long before Ronald Regan became president, or the Supreme Court issued its landmark ruling on abortion.

For a deeper dive we should go back to the 1930s, and not settle for the familiar 1980s version. In trying to mop up the mess left by the infamous stock market crash of October 1929, Pius X promulgated his papal encyclical Quadragessimo Anno (QA) in 1931. The following year, Democrat Franklin Delano Roosevelt won the presidency in a landslide over Republican incumbent Herbert Hoover.

QA was a continuation of the Catholic Church’s critique of the built-in inequities to be found in free-market capitalism. This formal analysis was first begun in 1891 by Leo XIII, when he addressed the excesses of the Gilded Age and the Robber Barons in his encyclical Rerum Novarum (RN). Both works contain a prescription for how economics might be done differently, to more effectively promote the common good.

FDR, for his part, entered the White House as a life-long devotee of what his Episcopalian and Methodist brethren refer to as the Social Gospel. He was first exposed at age 14, when he left home to attend the prestigious Groton School in Massachusetts.

His inner circle of advisors felt the same way. Consider Frances Perkins, a long-time friend and the first woman to ever serve in a presidential cabinet. She was Secretary of Labor from 1933-1945, and is widely acknowledged as the chief architect behind Social Security. Along with being a major contributor to many other ground-breaking pieces of “safety net” legislation.

It was FDR’s unique intellectual pedigree that allowed him to immediately recognize a kindred spirit in Pius X, whom he described as being “just as radical as I am” when it came to looking out for the little guy.

Conservatives at the time did not much care for FDR’s proclivities in this area of public policy. They vehemently protested his administration’s attempt to revive the economy and help millions of forgotten fellow citizens, attempts they derided as a decent into socialism.


The irony is that while the Episcopalians and Methodists in the Roosevelt administration were channeling Catholic social teaching on economics, many of its fiercest critics were Catholic intellectuals who based their opposition to the New Deal on strictly constitutional grounds.

One such intellectual was Clarence Manion, who published Lessons in Liberty in 1939, when he was teaching law at the University of Notre Dame. He made a powerful argument for the Christian origins of the United States, citing the Founders insistence on individual liberty as the embodiment of Catholic teaching on the dignity of every human being.

Manion established what would become a favorite talking point for conservative Catholics in the decades to follow: “Never before had a new government been formed for the sole and only purpose of protecting the God-given rights of the individual person.”

By invoking this logic to specifically attack FDR’s domestic agenda, Professor Manion helped tar and feather that agenda as not only un-American, but also anti-Catholic. The specter of socialism helped to underscore this, as the Church had already gone on record as condemning socialism as a God-less system of social organization. Manion gave cover to successive generations of Catholic academics and public intellectuals who would either challenge or creatively interpret Catholic social teaching on economics, throughout the remainder of the 20th century, and into the 21st.

After the wonky Clarence Manion in the 1930s and 1940s came the swash-buckling aristocrat William F. Buckley, Jr., who burst on the scene with his book God and Man at Yale, published in 1955. The magazine he went on to found, National Review, became required reading for educated Catholics of a conservative bent who sought to reconcile their upward mobility with the faith of their fathers.

Around the same time, Brent Bozel (Buckley’s brother-in-law and fellow Catholic) was busy ghost-writing The Conservative Mind (1960) for Arizona senator and soon-to-be presidential hopeful Barry Goldwater. Following Clarence Manion’s lead, Mr. Bozel set out to show that Goldwater’s version of American Exceptionalism was perfectly aligned with Catholic teaching. Rank-and-file Catholics weren’t buying, however, as Goldwater was defeated handily in the presidential election of 1964.

Determined to maintain this awkward charade of compatibility between American individualism and basic Catholicism, the high-profile Buckley was quick to lampoon the latest Catholic commentary on social justice as soon as it appeared. Mater et Magistra was promulgated by John XXIII in 1961, on the anniversary of both Rerum Novarum and Quadragissimo Ano. Buckley’s withering response to this Pope’s effort was a dismissive “Mother yes, Teacher no.”


When Ronald Reagan first ran for public office in the mid-1960s, after starting to build his political brand in the 1950s, he found a ready ally in laissez-faire Catholic like William F. Buckley, Jr. When the abortion issue went from backburner to front and center in 1973, it merely sealed the deal. Reagan winning the presidency in 1980 was a dream come true for a wide swatch of the now-mainstream Catholic demographic. Not only was the Gipper “solidly pro-life,” but his trickle-down theory of economic health was music to the ears of libertarian Catholics across the country.

In the years since then the conservative intelligentsia has continued to work hard to cement this special Republican bond with people in the pews. One-time liberal theologian Michael Novak (1933-2017) published his career-defining book, The Spirit of Democratic Capitalism, in 1982. It made him the darling of conservative Catholic entrepreneurs everywhere. Father Richard John Neuhaus (1936-2009) joined the posse in 1990 as founder and editor of the erudite monthly First Things. This was (and still is) an ecumenical journal “whose purpose is to advance a religiously informed public philosophy for the ordering of society.”

While I support that high-minded agenda wholeheartedly, I believe First Things often undermines itself when it vouches for – either explicitly or implicitly – a built-in compatibility between free-wheeling capitalism and Christianity. And more specifically, with the nuts-and-bolts of modern-day Catholic social teaching on economics.

Exhibit “A” would be how the Novak/Neuhaus crowd tutored the Catholic faithful in what it saw as a proper understanding of Centessimus Annus (CA). This was the landmark encyclical promulgated by John Paul II in 1991, the anniversary of Mater et Magistra, Quadragissmio Anno, and Rerum Novarum. That’s right, JPII took this historic occasion to chime in on economic behavior and its impact on the social fabric, re-iterating for our time what his forgotten predecessors had clearly stated.

Neo-cons, however, took a novel approach to interpreting the Polish Pope who helped end the Cold War. They adopted CA as the long-awaited grand re-imagining of Catholic teaching on economics, claiming it offered an unequivocal defense of the free market. But this comprehensive, nuanced document did no such thing.

Instead of ignoring Catholic teaching on economic life as Clarence Manion did in 1939, or pejoratively dismissing it as William F. Buckley, Jr. did in 1961, what the current generation of conservative Catholic intellectuals seem to specialize in is a sort of sophisticated game of bait-and-switch.

Their modus operandi is to selectively crib statements from Centessimus Annus out of context, and present them to average lay men and women as whole cloth. They have succeeded in having this blatant mis-representation accepted as the definitive take-away, while somehow maintaining their sterling reputation for orthodoxy. If only everyday Catholics would bother to read the source material for themselves, they’d see through this ruse in a New York minute.

As dire as I think this situation has become, I do not ascribe nefarious motives to those conservative Catholics who have effectively rejected the Church’s social teaching on economics. Nor am I overly worked up about the way these folks profess to be “traditional” and “orthodox” in their beliefs, while displaying such a tin ear on this important topic. I see no point in going out of my way to condemn anyone for this sort of mistake. Better to try and offer fraternal correction.

If only conservative Catholics could be weaned off their embrace of the American myth of rugged individualism and every man for himself and pulling yourself up by your bootstraps, they might one day become more sympathetic to the idea of collective bargaining having a positive impact on the common good in a capitalist economic system.

Then they might also see that Catholics are not supposed to be libertarian in their outlook, no matter how successful they are.

Robert J. Cavanaugh, Jr

May 13, 2022

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