September 22, 2022

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Unions Need to Change Their Image and Mission

RJ Carr
Photo Via CanvaPro

A union organizer chased me out to my car once.

I was working at a quadrilingual inner-city Catholic parish at the time. A community organizer in a local factory was trying to unionize the company. He did not work there. He asked me if I would teach the workers the Catholic doctrine on unions. The Church promotes them officially since the publication of Pope Leo XIII’s encyclical Rerum Novarum. This document published in the late 19th Century is the foundation for Catholic Social teaching. In the United States, the Church backed unions since the formation of the Knights of Labor.

I agreed. Well, I should have foreseen the result. Without warning, he put my name on a union rally poster and spread it throughout the plant in English and Spanish. I went to him about the way he handled it. His response was words to the effect that I was the fool who said yes to him so I had to deal with the consequences.

Those who know me also know I am not one to treat so disrespectfully. I then received a call from the head of the company asking what was I doing on a union rally poster. Again, I was simply going to explain the Church’s teaching on unions. Obviously, I was a bit naive.

A broken union

Well, I did a little research. There was a union that a company successfully broke a decade or so earlier. It was a disaster, families split over which side they stood. All workers who remained with the company received a pay cut, the company terminated the rest and hired new workers at a much lower wage. The workers who stayed and the new workers endured the epithet and harassment of the striking workers calling them “scabs”. There was violence and destruction. This went on for two years until the company broke the union. In my research, I discovered this was the same union that asked me to speak on church teaching on unions. The same form of arrogance was one contributing factor to the breakdown between the company and the local.

I vowed, when I heard the stories before, I would never support that union; the whole situation seemed handled so poorly on all sides. I discovered that attitude was a factor on the local level. So, when I gave the talk, I explained to everyone where the Church stands on unions but then explained the question was not whether they should join a union but should they join this one. I then told the story of the disaster that led to the company defeating the union.

Needless to say, it did not go over well with Mr. Snotty Organizer. His co-organizer chased me out to my car as another screamed at me. The company did not unionize.

I tell this story to explain this is one of several times I watched unions drop the ball with poor public relations. What caused it more than anything is they are focused on organizing the workers by fighting the company but they have little public relations experience and this is killing some of them. Further, remember, many corporations have a media outreach machine at the ready at all times.

The union cog in the industrial machine

Unions are the product of the industrial revolution. Up until then, workers owned their labor. The shoemaker created the shoe and sold it as a product of his work. If you worked as a cobbler then the fruit of your labor was still a part of you.

The industrial revolution within capitalism created workers alienated from their labor. Say what you want about Karl Marx but he realized the dehumanizing effects of this situation. Workers labored for pay and really had little connection to what they produced. For example, you don’t produce shoes, a machine produces them and you run the machine. You are now alienated from your labor.

Your labor and not the work of your hands becomes a commodity. Company owners now purchase your labor like they would purchase the raw material for the product.

Additionally, many working to educate the nation on the history of slavery explain it is also a product of capitalism because it is all about lowering labor costs. If there are no labor costs, overhead is low raising net income.

Labor is some of the highest costs for a business so the more executives lower those costs, the higher the net revenue of the company. Let’s go back to the disaster of the company at the opening of the article. What was the final result of the war between the union and the company? Lower wages. The company greatly reduced its labor costs which it could not do with the union. However, their action caused a huge amount of human collateral damage. The tragedy is the union and the company could not come to an agreement and workers and their families suffered a terrible human cost.

Unions became a way to ensure the workers receive a good wage and even benefits in exchange for their work. Without unions or even the pressure of possible unionization profits drive wages. Unions are there to humanize the wages and the commodity that is labor.

This is the point of unions. Without them, or the legislation they spawned, there is a real danger of the return to the days of profit-driving wages and driving them down. So, unions played an important part in the economy in our society and still do.

Unions as another voice to government

Recently, I attended a union rally which I wrote about here. Speakers were Sean O’Brien of the Teamsters Sara Nelson of the Flight Attendant’s Union and Senator Bernie Sanders. I expected this cynically to be a Democrat party rally but instead what I heard was the need for the government and both parties to hear the workers’ voices. More and more I am hearing from sources who explain that the oligarchs of the nation control the Democrats and Republicans. Journalist and author Chris Hedges explains they are, therefore, one party. Hedges was a speechwriter for Ralph Nader’s 2008 campaign.

If unions want to be a strong voice for workers they have to show the public that they are not against them and actually play a part in holding the authorities of the nation accountable. They are an important cog in the system and without them, the system can break as easily as the union broke in my story above. They also have to ensure the same professionalism in their own ranks that they would want to see in work done for them.

The outcome must be what is best for all — the company, the workers and the customers. Americanism teaches that we define success in financial terms so the man who receives millions of dollars as an executive but pays his workers minimum wage is a great success in this culture even though this does not serve the common good.

Unions reaching out to the unemployed

Unions also can work to employ the unemployed. There are many who fall through the cracks and never get into a trade school or college and as the saying goes, life happens. They lose their chance to make it in this world. If unions could reach out to them and build a probationary system to separate the unemployable from the unemployed they would be doing a great service to their communities, their companies and the country as well. This is a great need unions could fill.

A former student of mine ended up in a gang. He engaged in a shooting and went to prison for seven years. When he got out his chances of finding a job were none. However, one company, not American by the way, hired him and he was loyal to the company for giving him a chance he could find nowhere else.

Do American companies and unions do that?

I spoke to a man who also served time in prison for dealing drugs. He told me he had no skills or talent. I disagreed.

“You’ve done sales. It may have been illegal sales but sales nonetheless, you need to work retail sales.”

Unions could help with all of that and benefit themselves, the company and the country as well.

There needs to be a greater effort on the part of union public relations to educate the public that they are not bullies as they can be portrayed maybe by company-friendly media. Creating a pay scale that works for all is important. Companies can find a host of people who fell through the cracks which could be the best workers most appreciative for their jobs.

RJ Carr is the author of Encounter Christ in Your Humanity

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