Why Have a Union?

Why Unions at Good Companies?
The Working Catholic by Bill Droel

“Why did the new, worker friendly workplaces prove unable to keep their employees happy enough not to have to pay union dues?” So asks a Chicago Tribune editorial (4/10/24). The editors have in mind Trader Joe’s, Starbucks, the camping equipment retailer REI plus several museums and theatres here in Chicago and elsewhere. After all, Trader Joe’s has a 7% annual pay increase, a 401K, a health insurance option, employee discount on groceries and more, the Tribune informs us.
Many executives and managers plus the Tribune editors have a mistaken premise. Employees who desire a union are not entirely motivated by discontent, particularly regarding their wage. The desire for participation is an increasingly important factor in union activity among nurses, tech engineers, hotel staff, autoworkers and more. These employees organize in part to keep their good company good.
Then too perhaps the Tribune and others are mistaken that these companies really are progressive. The companies in question undermine their image once the word union enters their domain. The noble employers quickly reveal another side. They retaliate. They threaten to close a store or an entire plant. They harass outspoken employees. They make side-deals with passive employees. They begin legal action against employees who promote their cause with t-shirts and tote bags that display the company name or logo. Such employers conclusively reveal their true character when they retain a union-busting firm. They continue their hostility by avoiding conversations and negotiations with employees.
Paternalism is not respectful. Grand mission statements are hollow without genuine involvement of all the workers.
Catholic labor relations doctrine can help. It states that a decision for or against a union belongs to the employees without paternal or maternal interference from their employer. Every honest company, no matter the circumstances, should share information with its workers through regular conversations, attractive pamphlets and newsletters plus supplying understandable summaries of the data given to investors. But a union vote is to be without harassment.
Catholic doctrine does not say that any one or another company must have a union. Nor does Catholic doctrine endorse this union for this company. Again, the choice belongs to the employees.
Catholic doctrine does say that a healthy society has the collective participation of workers in some form. Democratic unions are a normal way to secure participation.
Catholic doctrine instructs employers and employees to behave ethically. Retaining a union-busting firm violates Catholic doctrine and is objectively sinful. Instead, employers are advised to seek reputable assistance in their labor relations. Those employers who bargain tough are well within bounds.
For more on this topic, obtain St. John Paul II’s Gospel of Work (National Center for the Laity, PO Box 291102, Chicago, IL 60629; $8)