Angilbert (fl. ca. 840/50), On the Battle Which was Fought at Fontenoy

The Law of Christians is broken,
Blood by the hands of hell profusely shed like rain,
And the throat of Cerberus bellows songs of joy.

Angelbertus, Versus de Bella que fuit acta Fontaneto

Fracta est lex christianorum
Sanguinis proluvio, unde manus inferorum,
gaudet gula Cerberi.

Thursday, December 15, 2011

Unions and the Common Good

LABOR UNIONS PLAY A FUNDAMENTAL EVEN INDISPENSABLE ROLE in the advancing the interests of workers vis-à-vis their employers. Though--like any human institution--the history of unions shows they are the subject of abuse and misuse, their history also shows that they have the possibility of contributing not only to the good of the worker whom they represent, but to the common good as well.

The Church generally supported and supports the right of the workers to peaceful assembly and association. The Church's social doctrine therefore insists that workers have "the right to form associations or unions to defend the vital interests of workers employed in the various professions." (Compendium, No. 305)

Properly ordered, such association of workers, by independently and responsibly advancing the rights of workers and their interests, can contribute to the good of the worker and contribute to the common good as a whole. Properly ordered, then, unions then contribute to the general welfare of the entire population, increasing social justice and increasing its wealth and welfare.

The Church's support of unions must be understood within her vision of labor unions and their function. The function of unions must be understood within the Church's greater understanding of economic life as a whole. The Church does not accept the Marxist notion of a "class struggle," and any view of unions as being "mouthpiece for a class struggle which inevitably governs social life" is to be rejected.

Rather, the Church takes a more Heraclitean view of labor unions. According to Aristotle, the ancient Greek philosopher Heraclitus criticized the poet Homer who prayed that strife should perish among men, since Heraclitus insisted that justice required struggle.* In the relationship between worker and employer, there must be a similar struggle, a struggle for social justice.

It is inevitable that there will be struggles in the achievement for social justice if for no other reason than there are different interests involved between capital and between labor. And unions have a role towards implementing a tenuous peace between capital and labor, not in advancing internecine war.

"Properly speaking," the Compendium of the Church's Social Doctrine states, "unions are promoters of the struggle for social justice, for the rights of workers in their particular profession." (Compendium, No. 306) But the Church's understanding of struggle is nuanced. "This struggle," the Compendium continues quoting John Paul II's encyclical Laborem Exercens,** "should be seen as a normal endeavor 'for' the just good . . . not a struggle 'against' others."

This struggle--while of necessity adversarial--excludes any animosity, any hatred, any strict "us" versus "them" mentality. Any "hatred and attempts to eliminate the other are completely unacceptable." The struggle is one that is engaged in a spirit of cooperation, of solidarity, with an eye toward the common good. Unions must recognize that their rights and the rights of the worker are not absolute. Rather, they must recognized that "in every social system both 'labor' and 'capital' represent indispensable components of the process of production." The common good overrides the right of both employer and worker. (Compendium, No. 306)

Since social justice and not class warfare is the union's end, the union must view itself as an instrument of "solidarity and social justice," and any union ought to shun any misuse of the "tools of contention," such as strikes. (Compendium, No. 306) Indeed, ideally unions are to be disciplined and self-monitoring. They should "be capable of self-regulation," and they must always "be able to evaluate the consequences that their decisions will have on the common good." Unions ought neither to pit themselves against employers nor pit themselves against the common good.

While generally supportive of unions, the Church's social doctrine also promotes the notion of "right-to-work laws" which prohibit agreements between labor unions and employers that would make membership, the payment of union dues, a mandatory condition of employment and which require workplace to be a closed shop. Unions, the Compendium states, must resist "the temptation of believing that all workers should be union members." (Compendium, No. 306)

Unions ought to be more than mere advocates, "defending and vindicating" the rights of the worker. They ought also to have a greater appreciation for their role in greater society, in promoting not only the parochial or private interests of the workers, but the "proper arrangement of economic life" of the nation. They also should play an educative function, "educating the social consciences of workers so that they will feel that they have an active role, according to their capacities and aptitudes, in the whole task of economic and social development and in the attainment of the universal common good." (Compendium, No. 306)

Though unions ought to have a social role and a political voice, they are not "political parties," ought to avoid the quest for political power, ought not to be "too closely linked" to political parties, and at the same time ought not to be forced to submit to the "decisions of political parties." They ought to be independent from the political process, and never "become an instrument for other purposes." Their role is to make the political arena "sensitive to labor problems," and--in a manner independent of partisan spirit--help the political process include the rights of workers as part of the political mix. (Compendium, No. 307)

If unions become instruments of political parties, or if political parties become instruments of unions, there will necessarily be imbalance. Unions in such cases "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." (Compendium, No. 307)

Aristotle, Eudemian Ethics 1235a25; Heraclitus: DK22B80. The poet was Homer. See Iliad 18.107.
**John Paul II, Laborem exercens, 20.

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