Monday, February 28, 2011

A Thought for Nate on Unions

My post on Friday came late to a debate that, on the ground at least, appears to be winding down, or at least is shifting to a different terrain--it seems unlikely that a mobilization that brought up to 100,000 people out on the streets of Madison on Saturday (and tens of thousands more in demonstrations which occurred in state capitols all around the country in support of them) will be able to keep up such intensity. Unless, of course, the stuff floating around you hear about a general strike in Wisconsin comes to fruition; that would kick things up another level. But for now, one quick additional thought.

Nate Oman, a law professor at William and Mary, is one of the smartest people I know, and my proof of this is the many times he has hammered me over basic issues of economics in our many political and religious arguments over the years. Nate's basically a fan of markets, and thus basically unfriendly to unions. But he respects the ideas and history they represent, as laid out in this fine column which was published over the weekend. A highlight:

Labor law and anti-discrimination law regulate the workplace in fundamentally different ways. Anti-discrimination laws treat workers in isolation, protecting them against mistreatment on the basis of race, religion, gender, and--in some jurisdictions--sexual orientation. It holds up the ideal of an individual judged wholly independent of any accidents of birth or identity. Labor law, in contrast, creates associations of workers, often using mild coercion, and forces management to bargain with the associations. In contrast to the individualism of anti-discrimination laws, labor law envisions an ideal marketplace in which every worker is embedded in an association that both regulates his behavior and protects his interests.

Anti-discrimination law reflects a basically Protestant view of the moral universe, while labor law reflects a basically Catholic view of the moral universe. For Martin Luther every individual came alone before the throne of God, stripped of the mediating influences of tradition, community, or priesthoods, seeking mercy for his exposed and sinful soul....In contrast to Protestantism, Catholicism accepts the legitimacy of tradition in defining identity and insists that spiritual life requires participation in the "community of the saints"....Labor law reflects this communal vision of human identity and human flourishing.

This is a simplistic and even somewhat reductive explanation, as Nate would be the first to admit, but it's also insightful. As he succinctly the details the differences between the approaches taken by civil rights protesters in the 1960s, emerging most prominently from Protestant Baptist and African Methodist denominations, and those taken by labor forces, most of which found their greatest strength in the immigrant Catholic communities and leadership of the early 20th century, it makes sense to suggest that the different legal thinking at work in Wisconsin (many conservatives are happy to attack collective bargaining, but have no interest in going as far as Rand Paul and attacking the Civil Rights Act) reflects a difference, at least in part, in our civil religion: most of us, and most of our institutions and organizations, are more Protestant than Catholic, more individualistic than communitarian, and thus there is less public cost associated with attacking anything that speaks of people in terms of group or class or community interests, as opposed to something that speaks of individual rights.

I would ask Nate one question though, one which his own argument opens up about Wisconsin--namely, if this reasoning is correct, then shouldn't attacking corporations, vilifying and challenging and undermining the advantages which their collective associations of capital, built around plainly fictitious "persons," have enabled them to gain in the marketplace, be a lot easier? Of course, there is plenty out there on the level of rhetoric which romanticizes the entrepreneurial individual going up against the big corporate guns...but when you look at where weight lies in our economy (easy answer: look where the bulk of bailout dollars went), it really does seem that corporate entities enjoy plenty of advantages. Why doesn't our civil religion granted that same benefit of the doubt to unions? Corporations are, of course, in their basic organization, no more foreign to "using mild coercion" in the service of pulling together their constituent parts, than unions are. They are collective, in other words, or rather, "Catholic." Yet our presumably Protestant resistance to such doesn't seem to have the same effect. The answer, I suspect is obvious: deep religious explanations only go so far, especially when they are up against structural forces which shape and privilege the holders of capital in their presentation of themselves as friends of the individual economic actor. Or, as the joke making the rounds on Facebook today puts it: "A unionized employee, a Tea Party member & a corporate CEO are sitting at a table. In the middle is a plate with a dozen cookies on it. The CEO reaches out & takes 11 of the cookies, then says to the Tea Party member 'look out for that union guy, he wants a piece of your cookie.'" That's about the size of it, or so it seems to me.


WVS said...

This is tangent to your post, but I can't help noting that the Protestant-Catholic dynamic is broadly present in early Utah and generally post Joseph Smith pioneer Mormonism. I'll leave it alone now.

Ricketson said...

Maybe this is the difference between corporations and unions: unions emphasize their group identity (i.e. democracy and all that) whereas corporations try to depict themselves as integrated individuals (with their strict hierarchy and glorious leaders).

Of course, corporations also encourage their employees to be "team players", but groups often look different from the inside than they do from the outside.