This past Saturday a coalition of liberals and progressives held a rally at the Lincoln Memorial, a perceived (though not intended) response to Glenn Beck and the Tea Party’s rally of August 28th.  While Beck’s rally was more akin to a religious revival in the spirit of a God-drenched American exceptionalism, the progressives’ rally was overtly political.

Most of the tens of thousands of rally-goers were members of labor unions, a constituency that has been a powerful and entrenched element of the Democratic Party for several generations.  (Indeed, many demonstrators traveled to the rally in one of hundreds of buses the unions chartered.)  While the rally’s main message was the need to create jobs and revive the economy, the speeches left no doubt as to which party could best do this.

This powerful demonstration of unions’ political strength raises the question: What should justice-seeking Christians think about labor unions?  As with most questions at the nexus of faith and politics, the question is complex.  Let’s begin with a recent history of the American economy.

Starting in the 1970s, our country has been transitioning from a manufacturing economy to a knowledge and service economy—from one based on trade in goods to trade in services and information.  For many families, this has been a painful transition.  The sufferings of middle-aged working-class men (and some women) who have lost solid manufacturing jobs since the 1970s—a trend exacerbated by the 2008 economic downturn—have been especially difficult to watch.  The days when a high school graduate could comfortably support a family with a factory job are long gone.  Having lost a job, and the dignity of regular work, older men especially often struggle to recover.

As one might imagine, this transition has hurt labor unions as well, with declining manufacturing contributing to declining union membership.  (After World War II, about a third of American workers were members of unions; today the number is about 12 percent, and more than half of those are government employees.)

Labor unions fight on the side of these workers, and I think Christians should recognize their right to exist and the fundamental—even critical—role they play in the modern economy.  The Catholic Church says that unions, “while pursuing their specific purpose with regard to the common good, are a positive influence for social order and solidarity, and are therefore anindispensable element of social life;” and describes unions as “promoters of the struggle for social justice.” [italics in original]

Moreover, given the public’s critical responsibility to protect the human dignity of workers, and of work itself, I believe Christians ought to see that the rights of workers are prior to the rights of capital—yet at the same time recognizing the complementarity and necessity of both.  Work is an essential expression of one’s humanity, of one’s free capacity to share in the work of creation, and thus must be protected against capital’s possible temptation to view workers as commodities, as mere instruments of production, and so dehumanize them.

That said, there are cautions for the labor side as well—cautions that I believe urgently need to be heard by the modern labor movement.  Today capital is not the only side of the relationship that has power—unions do too, and lots of it.  Decades of union advocacy have resulted in passage of countless pro-union policies that give unions various legal advantages (often just advantages, but not necessarily so).  Large budgets, funded by union members’ mandatory dues), pay for such advocacy (chartering buses to political rallies, for example, but more commonly political advertising) and campaigns can rely on union members’ prodigious volunteer work.  Accordingly, unions have major influence on many elections, and if they so choose can cause serious headaches for governments and businesses.

But as they gained strength, unions have faced their own temptations.  In their quest for political power, labor unions in the U.S. have formed common cause almost exclusively with the Democratic Party, their traditional ally, even as many union members hold views at odds with other elements of the Democratic platform.  (Many union members hold views at odds with their union itself, but that is irrelevant to our discussion).  Is it wise for a movement seeking to promote the (not strictly partisan) goal of social justice for workers to become so closely aligned with a political party?  Is it wise for any movement seeking the common good to do so?

I would argue—no, it isn’t.  No political party will ever have a monopoly on justice, and when you stand too close to the fire of party politics (whose priority is winning elections, not the common good) it’s easy to get burned.  (If in need of examples, just think of the close relationship between the Religious Right and the Republican Party.  Remember Jack Abramoff?)

Indeed, the Catholic Church has warned: “Unions do not…have the character of ‘political parties’ struggling for power, and they should not be forced to submit to the decisions of political parties nor be too closely linked to them.  In such a situation they easily lose contact with their specific role, which is to secure the just rights of workers within the framework of the common good of the whole of society; instead they become an instrument used for other purposes.” (i.e. winning elections) [italics added]

So then, in the current historical moment, do unions add to or detract from the dignity of workers?  Certainly they add to human dignity on the many occasions when they compel management to respect the human concerns of workers.  But at the same time, many business owners, school principals, and government executives could quickly provide examples of union members’ misbehavior that by all appearances is contrary to the common good and workers’ dignity.

There are workers who deliberately underperform—conscious of the often overwhelming  job security given them by their collectively-bargained contract—or less-self-consciously merely fail to work with the intensity and integrity of dignified work; as well as workers who dishonestly take advantage of generous sick leave policies, knowing the union’s lawyers will back them up if their employer ever challenges them.  Certainly these abuses are not unique to union members, but are they more common among them?  Would it be better in many of these cases if workers were more accountable to typical labor market pressures—i.e. the “real world”?

Moreover, in organizing campaigns and their political activity, unions can at times exhibit intense bitterness and cynicism, even hatred—in my experience, uniquely virulent among other traditional constituencies.  Often their activity seems more oriented againstRepublicans and business (or even other unions) than actually for workers and the common good. Again, this behavior can also be found outside of unions, but to the same degree?  If not, do unions deserve any blame for these particular offenses against workers’ dignity?

Have unions in the U.S. become just another self-interested institution—a “special interest” even—seeking their own power and advancement rather than the good of others?  Or do they still seek the common good in solidarity with working men and women?

For Christians striving to take their political responsibilities seriously, to seek the common good with integrity, to me these questions get to the core of our question.  No doubt the answer is somewhere in the middle.  But whatever one’s answer, the question of what to think about labor unions deserves to be considered in all its nuance and complexity.  Blindly supporting unions, or blindly opposing them, are not acceptable options.  Rather, with an attitude always of charity, we must seek to discern when the authentic interests of workers and society lie with the interests of unions, and when they lie apart.