Has Secularism Undermined the Strength of Organized Labor?

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Fall, 2011; Source: Democracy | Lew Daly has an interesting piece in the latest issue of Democracy about one of the possible avenues for reviving the U.S. labor movement. As most people know, a very small proportion of the private-sector workforce is unionized. Labor union membership outside of the public sector has been shrinking for decades, and since the election of Scott Walker as governor in Wisconsin, public sector unions have faced efforts in many states to limit collective-bargaining rights.

Daly points out that in the unions’ heyday, some of the most vocal and respected proponents of organized labor were religious leaders, particularly Roman Catholics, who promoted the concept of the “just wage” in contrast to the notion of wages determined by the market. That led to significant Catholic support not only for unions, but for broader social policy interventions such as the New Deal.

Daly provides some history of the struggle of unions ”for legal and public standing” in the U.S. and notes that religious associations, “in some ways even more enduringly,” have faced a similar challenge. “Catholic schools . . . were among the most embattled institutions in state law and party politics in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries (not coincidentally, Catholics have also been predominant in trade union membership),” Daly notes, and “religious schools and faith-based social agencies in the United States have often been barred from or faced stringent limitations in accessing public benefit programs and funding.” He recounts many statements from recent popes that valued “labor over other economic factors,” establishing the framework for extensive Catholic support for organized labor.

Daly asserts,

Collective bargaining is, ultimately, a victim not just of America’s right-leaning politics and market liberalism, but of America’s pervasive institutional and legal secularism—our so-called “wall of separation” between church and state . . . [N]o democratic country (not even France, at least in some key respects) has been more extreme in its policing of the church-state divide and its privatization of religious faith, and at the same time none has been more hostile to the collective rights of labor and labor’s dignity in a religious sense. It is no coincidence that the country with the strictest separation of church and state also has the lowest collective bargaining rates. In the United States, religious bodies were increasingly excluded from public life even as collective bargaining, as a public right, went into terminal decline.

Daly goes on to argue that

proscribing religious associations from public benefits and an established place in public life has helped to reinforce a legal culture that also has no meaningful place for families, communities, or organized labor. . . . Networks of solidarity take many forms, but they are united by the need for recognition in the law and for public purpose in their cause. In a free-market nation, labor and religion will rise or fall together according to that need.

What do you think? Is strengthening the public role of organized religion key to strengthening organized labor?—Rick Cohen

  • cindy cumfer

    I’ve been a nonprofit lawyer for 33 years and also have a PhD in history and am very interested in and have taught nonprofit history. I’ve never seen this connection between religion and labor made before and find it very intriguing.

    My thought is that the answer does not lie in weakening the separation between church and state but rather in supporting changes in U.S. culture that would favor a more ethical approach to how we as USers choose to live. (Those of us who are religious can certainly find a lot of this in our religious traditions.)

    We need to balance our very strong cultural orientation toward individualism/private property/getting ahead economically with a sense of communal ethics. This would mean that we recognize how interconnected we are with each other and would value equity and fairness for everyone and more sharing of our material wealth and would focus more time/energy on relationships, nature, etc.

    I would further suggest that we already have a heritage of caring about our communities but that we have failed to name it and (like things that are not named) it fails to inform our actions. The heritage is our history of involvement in nonprofit associations. I could go on and on about how deeply nonprofits are embedded in our history but the important point is that this is rarely taught or recognized. If you examine survey textbooks on US history you will find that nonprofits are mentioned only in passing. The US history academy does not have a subfield for nonprofit history although a few historians are beginning to write about nonprofit history. Most of the work about nonprofit history, though, is done in connection and through the lens of another subfield–for example, 19th century American women’s history–and thus the focus is not on nonprofits but on their role in some other area.

    My suggestion is that we turn to our nonprofit heritage as proof that we Americans do value caring for our communities, do appreciate our interconnectedness with each other and do find satisfaction and identity outside of individualism and materialism. While many nonprofit organizations did have their roots in values that emanated from religions, not all did, and it was ultimately the values (and not the religions) that resonated with many Americans and that triggered changes (like the abolition of slavery, women’s suffrage, numerous civil rights successes, the conservation and environmental movements, the growth of charities, etc.)

    My thought, then, is that the key to strengthening organized labor is a values change, but not one that comes from strengthening religion per se but changes in our society that strengthen our communal values. Owning our nonprofit heritage is one of those changes.