It is not really a surprise that Sirico is against unions. After all, he is a consistent libertarian who believes in the supremacy of individual autonomy, in spite of clear Church positions against this – take Pope Paul VI, for example, who explicitly condemns the “erroneous affirmation of the autonomy of the individual in his activity, his motivation and the exercise of his liberty”.
From this vantage point, it is also not really a surprise that Sirico couches his argument in terms of individual freedom. He titles his essay “big gains for the union liberation movement”. But look at the language he uses: “The law simply gives working people the freedom to choose whether or not they want to be members of a union”. He quotes with approval a person who defines right-to-work as “not anti-union…purely and simply pro-choice” and concludes that with the observation that this is “a good working definition of economic justice, one we can embrace without reservation”.
As I said, on level one this is not too surprising. But on another level it is absolutely stunning. Sirico does not seem very self-aware here. Not only is he using the exact same terminology of those who oppose restrictions on the availability of abortion, he is also using the exact same argument.
And this really exposes the deep anthropological flaw in his reasoning. It is not simply about a prudential judgement on whether or not right-to-work laws are conducive to worker welfare (although the evidence suggests they are not – reducing wages, benefits, and safety standards relative to a unionized alternative). No, it is about Sirico’s anthropology – for him, it is about the autonomous individual of liberalism rather than the relational person of Christianity. The “liberty” he pursues is based on a negative form of freedom—freedom from coercion in the spirit of Lockean liberalism—rather than the more Catholic idea of positive freedom in the service of what is good and just.
Fundamentally, it is the exact the same Lockean liberalism that is used to justify abortion and same-sex marriage on the one hand, and economic libertarianism on the other. Sirico is betrayed by his choice of words.
I believe one of the key themes of Pope Benedict’s pontificate is that there the book of nature is one – that Church teachings on life, sexuality, and economic justice spring from the same deep source. Just recently, he reiterated this message pretty clearly:
“Although the defence of rights has advanced by leaps and bounds in our time, today’s culture, marked among other things by a utilitarian individualism and a technocratic economism, tends to undervalue the person. Today the human being is considered in a mainly biological key or as ‘human capital,’ as a ‘resource’ of sexual and reproductive rights, or of an immoderate financial capitalism that prevails over politics and takes the real economy apart”.
When you think about it, the people who are most opposed to unions come from the far left and the far right – the defenders of the almighty state and the defenders of exalted liberty. It is no surprise that the main enemies of unions today include the Chinese government and the American right. What both have in common is that they see only the individual and the state, and deny the role of any mediating institutions in between.
Sirico seems to understand none of this. In quoting Church teaching, he shows himself to be incredibly selective. He quotes John Paul II saying that unions should stay out of politics. But he doesn’t quote the same pope, in the same encyclical, saying that unions are an “indispensable element of social life”, a “mouthpiece for the struggle for social justice” and that their function is to protect workers “just rights vis-à-vis entrepreneurs and the owners of the means of production”.
Sirico likes to argue that papal teachings on unions apply only to earlier time periods, and that different circumstances today somehow call for a reversal of this teaching! This is mainly because he does not understand the key role of unions as subsidiary mediating institutions between the individual and the state. But it is also because he is misreading the “sign of the times”. I note that he is totally silent on what Pope Benedict says about the role of unions, so let quote him:
“Through the combination of social and economic change, trade union organizations experience greater difficulty in carrying out their task of representing the interests of workers, partly because Governments, for reasons of economic utility, often limit the freedom or the negotiating capacity of labour unions. Hence traditional networks of solidarity have more and more obstacles to overcome.
The repeated calls issued within the Church’s social doctrine, beginning with Rerum Novarum, for the promotion of workers’ associations that can defend their rights must therefore be honoured today even more than in the past, as a prompt and far-sighted response to the urgent need for new forms of cooperation at the international level, as well as the local level”.
In other words, the role of unions is actually even more important today, not less. There is a clear logic to this. The leading long-term economic story today is the shift in power away from labor and toward capital, which is leading to stagnant real wages across the board alongside record corporate profitability – a trend that “right-to-work” legislation tends to exacerbate. This is the kind of economic and social imbalance that Catholic social teaching has always viewed with suspicion. It is exactly why the Church continues to affirm the importance of unions. And it is exactly why Sirico just doesn’t get it.