Winter 2012

Religion: one major reason why Europe's labor unions are so powerful

– The Wilson Quarterly

Why do 70% of European workers have collective bargaining, while only 13% of their US counterparts do? Religion is a surprisingly big part of the answer.

Why do roughly 70 percent of European workers have collective bargaining coverage, while only 13 percent of their American counterparts do? Religion is a surprisingly big part of the answer.

In Europe, politics evolved hand in hand with forms of Christianity—especially Catholicism—that were sensitive to “labor’s dignity in a religious sense,” observes Lew Daly, author of God’s Economy: Faith-Based Initiatives and the Caring State (2009). As a result, in many parts of Europe, natural associations such as the family, churches, and labor unions were incorporated into public structures and protected from market competition because they were seen “as vital instruments of the common good.”

In the United States, however, politics and religion developed separately—the Constitution, after all, establishes a strict division between church and state. And that’s one of the main reasons unions are so enfeebled, in Daly’s view: American culture just isn’t set up for them. In the United States, individual rights are the bedrock of politics, not natural associations. That unions exist in the United States at all is due in large part to influential Catholic Americans inspired by the labor protections the Vatican began to endorse in the late 19th century. Collective bargaining and fair wages and hours can be traced to their activism. Other union-friendly policies they supported got the ax in the decades following the New Deal.

Unions in the United States are further hobbled by the fact that the majority of progressives, the most labor-friendly group in U.S. politics, maintain a studious distance from religious causes. Only a handful of groups, such as Sojourners and Faith in Public Life, have melded religion and the pursuit of progressive social welfare policies.

If progressives really want to see labor unions flourish, Daly contends, they need to rethink their commitment to “pervasive institutional and legal secularism.” Progressives should draw on “the authority of the ‘social faith’ [they] inherit from the great religious forebears of collective bargaining, social insurance, and the just wage.” Unions are weak in the United States for a plethora of reasons, he says, but progressives should not “underestimate the potential for coordinating family, labor, and religion in newfound solidarity and a new common path.”

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The Source: "The Church of Labor" by Lew Daly, in Democracy: A Journal of Ideas, Fall 2011. 

Photo courtesy of Flickr/Fibonacci Blue