A review of Liberating Labor: A Christian Economist’s Case for Voluntary Unionism by Charles W. Baird (Grand Rapids, Michigan: Acton Institute for the Study of Religion and Liberty, 2002, 85 pp).
I want to urge devotion to the fundamental of human liberty—to the principles of voluntarism. No lasting gain has ever come from compulsion. . . . The workers of America adhere to voluntary institutions in preference to compulsory systems which are held to be not only impractical, but a menace to their rights, their welfare, and their liberty.
—Samuel Gompers, 1924
Samuel Gompers, founder and first president of the American Federation of Labor, remains a legendary figure in the eyes of North American labour leaders. And yet his negative view of compulsory systems—including those imposed by unions—seems remote and disconnected from the philosophy and practices of today’s trade unions.
Gompers makes an unlikely ally for Charles W. Baird, an economics professor at California State University, Hayward. Baird’s essay, published as part of the Christian Social Thought Series, focuses on the relationship between Catholic social teaching and the role of labour unions. (Baird, himself a Catholic, writes that his essay is limited to the Catholic perspective because Protestantism lacks many denominational statements on the subject of trade unionism.)
Catholic social teaching, says Baird at the outset, has unequivocally supported some form of trade unionism, and so does he. Such a bold declaration of allegiance, only six lines into the book, might make the reader somewhat suspicious. And rightly so: the bulk of the essay that follows is spent on describing the forms of trade unionism that Baird does not support.
Baird begins building his case for voluntary unionism on the principle of freedom of association. He contrasts the positive and negative components of this basic human right: on the one hand, the freedom to join an association, and on the other, the freedom from being compelled to join an association. He observes that, in the United States, the courts have only recognized the positive right and emphatically rejected the other. While the author doesn’t make mention of the Canadian parallel, it is indeed quite comparable: courts here have consistently affirmed that freedom of association is all about freedom to associate and not so much about freedom from compulsory association.
The essay goes on to carefully describe the concept of voluntary exchange and its application to economics.
Voluntary exchange is a mechanism by which one is led to care for the interests of others even if one’s primary concern is self-interest. Consequently, voluntary exchange harnesses self-interest to the service of others. . . .
In a world guided by voluntary exchange, labor union leaders would have to care very much about the actual interests of the individual workers they represent. And if they lacked this regard for the individual worker, they would not have any workers to represent.
Of course, the thrust of the essay is the allegation that voluntary exchange does not in fact characterize the relationship between modern unions and their members. Later in the work Baird describes the different facets of that coercive relationship; in fact, he argues that ‘American trade unionism is based on coercion.’ That coercion manifests itself through exclusive representation (that is, when a majority of workers in a workplace vote for a union, all employees there must, as a result, be represented by the union); union security (the requirement that all represented employees pay union dues); the requirement that both union and employer bargain in good faith; and the ‘ill-defined’ right to strike. Although the author focuses on the National Labor Relations Act as the source of these requirements, it can safely be said that Canadian federal and provincial labour codes include similar ‘coercive’ provisions.
Baird makes an effort to describe the labour market process, and the result is disappointing. The worker becomes a commodity, and employment-related decisions—by employer and employee—are all assumed to be driven by supply/demand and pure economic considerations. The worker establishes the minimum wage at which he will work, the employer establishes the maximum wage that it can afford to pay, and voila, compensation is determined somewhere within that range.
Perhaps the most worthwhile part of the essay is Baird’s summary of papal teaching on unionism. Starting with Leo XIII and ending with John Paul II, he canvasses a wide range of encyclicals to support his thesis: the popes support freedom of association but do not support coercive measures by trade unions. And the evidence seems to bolster his case: ‘Just as inhabitants of a town are wont to found associations with the widest diversity of purposes, which each is quite free to join or not, so those engaged in the same industry or profession will combine with one another into associations equally free for purposes connected in some manner with the pursuit of the calling itself’ (Pius XI, quoted by Baird).
However, the author doesn’t adequately deal with the fact that there is a significant amount of Catholic social teaching and thought that doesn’t support his argument. Though his essay condemns strikes that are not based on the concept of voluntary exchange (presumably a voluntary-exchange strike is one where an individual worker or a group of individuals each decide to withhold labour, and where there is no picketing, since that is coercive to others), he quotes, with little comment, a seemingly different perspective from John Paul II in Laborem Exercens, ‘One method used by unions in pursuing just rights of their members is the strike or work stoppage. . . . This method is recognized by Catholic social teaching as legitimate in the proper conditions and within just limits.’
Baird also makes only passing reference to the famous ‘labor priest,’ Monsignor George Higgins, who, with others, insisted that compulsory unionism is supported by papal teaching. (However, see a related article by Baird at http://www.sbe.csuhayward.edu/~sbesc/ctsunionism.html , in which he aggressively attacks arguments made by Higgins.)
While Baird’s writing is generally easy to understand and follow, he delivers some major disappointments in this essay. Not only are employees seen as a commodity, there is devout trust in the mechanisms of the market to assist in creating fair employer-employee relations. In this, Baird could have benefited from some of the Protestant theology which he chose to eschew at the beginning of the essay. To put it simply, even if market mechanisms were built perfectly into creation, they too have been affected by the distorting and destructive power of sin.
Abraham Kuyper exclaims: ‘Sin is such a tremendous power that it mocks all your dikes and sluices . . . it will again and again flood the field of human life with the waters of its passion and selfishness’ (The Problem of Poverty). Market mechanisms—the freedom of the worker to chose a suitable employer, the supply/demand method of setting wages, and the freedom of the employer to keep or dispose of employees—are not sufficient to contain the effects of sin on the workplace and are in fact themselves corroded by sin.
While Baird pays homage to the basic human right to freely associate, he fails to consider what is required to make that a meaningful entitlement. In this, he is squarely on side with the Supreme Court of Canada’s absurd treatment of freedom of association. In Dunmore v. Ontario (Attorney General), the Court ruled that agricultural workers in Ontario must have the freedom to associate. However, the Court made it clear that such an entitlement did not include the right to bargain collectively, take job action, or have disputes arbitrated.
As a result, Ontario farm workers today have the right to freedom of association—which is almost entirely meaningless. They may join organizations that amount to social clubs or perhaps lobby groups—but without any legal standing to require employer recognition or to resolve disputes. This type of freedom fits much better with a libertarian view of labour than one based on Catholic social teaching.
For freedom of association to have any practical meaning, there needs to be legal recognition of a second tier of rights. The right to require employers to recognize legitimate unions, the right to require good-faith bargaining, the right to strike or have binding arbitration to resolve disputes—these are not basic human rights. But they flow out of the right to freely associate, and, in the context of labour relations, allow individuals to actually exercise the basic right.
What is truly surprising about this essay is its conclusion. After its eye-catching title, and 76 pages explaining why Catholic social teaching does not support American trade unionism in its current form, the reader expects a great finale—an alternative model. Surely professor Baird will conclude the book with a well-thought-out design for effective, non-coercive trade unionism.
Alas, this is not to be. Baird’s ‘Model of Voluntary Unionism’ is barely a page and a half long and completely lacking in specifics. His model for liberating labour:
The answer is voluntary unionism. Each individual worker would be free to choose which, if any, union from which to obtain representation. Similarly, each union would be free to choose which of these willing workers it would agree to represent. . . . No employer would be compelled to bargain with any union, and no union would be compelled to bargain with any employer. If a worker chooses to be represented by a union that is willing to accept the terms of such an association, any employer who wants to bargain for the worker’s services would have to bargain with the union chosen by the worker, but any employer would be free to decline to bargain for the services of any worker. . . . Any employer would be free to hire only union-free labor, or only unionized labor. Workers who are amenable to that arrangement would accept such employment offer, and other workers would not.
Baird holds up New Zealand’s ill-fated Employment Contracts Act of 1991, as an example of his model. That act, which encouraged individual employee-employer contracts and greatly reduced legislative protection for unions, was, in his view, a champion of voluntary unionism and one that worked very well. Of course, not everyone in New Zealand viewed it that way, and it was repealed in 2000.
There is indeed a problem with the coercive aspect of North American trade unionism, but there is not much that is liberating in Baird’s proposed solution. Certainly, employers would be liberated from the obligation to deal with their workers’ chosen bargaining agent. But for the worker, Baird turns freedom of association into a meaningless right, rife with risk when exercised. I doubt that Gompers would applaud.