Has Secularism Undermined the Strength of Organized Labor?

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