Why do so many Christians in the U.S. despise organized labor?

Today, only 12.5 percent of the American workforce is unionized, whereas in 1954 nearly a third of all working Americans were members of a union. Nearly 4 percent of all union members work for the federal government.

The drop in union membership can be attributed to several deliberate misconceptions.

The first is a changing economy that, through technology and the global nature of production and finance, empowers the individual. Management’s role in employment has decreased, making organized labor irrelevant. The worker and the source of her revenue are the only relevant parties to a labor contract.

The second cause, the conservative right argues, is to be found in unions themselves. Unions are dangerous to the American economy and to the welfare of the individual. Organizations like the Heritage Foundation and Citizens for a Better America aggressively charge unions with destroying democracy and abridging American freedoms.

Albeit, many of the activities of organized labor seem to be full-throttle attempts to gain power and wealth for themselves as they are depicted in the media.

Whether it’s the New York public transportation or the British Airways cabin crew workers, strikes almost always appear to be aimed at selfishly paralyzing an industry and holding a sector of the economy hostage.

Ultimately, conservatives argue, the victims of organized labor’s activities are the workers themselves. This is the case even when unions succeed in their objectives. The cost, and benefit, of doing business will and should–according to the moral standard of our market–be passed on either to the individual as worker or to the individual as consumer.

This is the attitude which drove Sam Walton to despise and oppose organized labor in Wal-Mart.

He wrote in his 1992 autobiography: “I have always felt strongly that we don’t need unions at Wal-Mart…. The partnership we have at Wal-Mart–which includes profit sharing, incentive bonuses, discount stock purchase plans and a genuine effort to involve the associates in the business so we can pull together–works better for both sides than any situation I know of involving unions” (Frontline, 2003).

A third misconception is that unions violate individual rights.

For example, the current legal action of the AFL-CIO against President Bush’s attempt to privatize retirement funding appears to be a war against individual freedom and prosperity.

The U.S. Supreme Court has heard arguments in the case of Davenport v. WEA and Washington v. WEA, a case which seeks to prohibit unions from applying non-union member mandatory dues toward political activity, unless specified twice by the individuals.

Forgotten or ignored is the fact that in unionized markets, even non-union workers earn a salary up to 20 percent higher than the company would otherwise pay them if the union had not negotiated salaries.

Finally, if American Christians don’t hate unions for these reasons, there’s ultimately the fourth misconception: the Bible. Jerry Falwell and Pat Robertson have argued at different times that Romans 13 extends the mandate to obey all authority to corporate authority.

A deeper look into these three reasons for anti-union attitudes reveals a disturbing foundation for “the body of Christ.” The isolated individual is the center of social meanings in America.

Individuals don’t need unions, because unions impede the use of empowering technology and mobility, force companies to downsize, restrict rights and eat into the divine role of authority.

In fact, union extinction is just one part of a growing American ethos.

American Christians are shrugging off social institutions that make us morally accountable to one another as quickly as other citizens. The public schools, publicly funded health care, pensioned and public retirement … each of these are going the way of the dinosaur as the meteor of privatization penetrates further into the social atmosphere.

Robert Putnam, in his insightful book Bowling Alone: The Collapse and Revival of American Community, analyzes the disconnecting of American society. He looks at the relationship between freedom and individualism.

Americans, since the 1950’s, have reduced the number of social and civic affiliations we have with each other in our search for social autonomy. Even with cyberspace communities flourishing, we are less accountable to one another.

For example, at the same time that unions are diminishing, so too is community service. Putnam explains that while volunteering may be up, community projects are down because the demographic of citizens doing most of the volunteering are the elderly. Likewise, as the elderly retire, union memberships drastically decrease. Furthermore, Putman explains, Americans born after 1968 value money twice as much as Americans born before 1950.

Rather than romantically place value in the America of previous generations, Putnam takes a more sober view concerning social trends in America. Despite growing churches and the increase in monetary giving, civic engagement has decreased in the past 50 years.

One of the reasons for the diminishment of civic life can be found in the nature of the social networks that succeed individuals and their communities.

He categorizes these social networks into “bonding” and “bridging” social capital, where bonding networks are “inward looking and tend to reinforce exclusive identities and homogenous groups.” Bridging networks, on the other hand, “are better for linkage to external assets and for information diffusion” between different social groups.

Although both kinds of social networks are needed for a healthy society, “bridging social capital can generate broader identities and reciprocity, whereas bonding social capital bolsters our narrower selves,” Putnam maintains.

His research unfortunately shows that social networks have eroded at the public level and segregated at the private level. The upshot of this research is alarming: most Americans prefer developing social networks that directly affect their own prosperity. In the meantime, we are better able to tolerate the disadvantage of others.

Unions–one of many social institutions that have traditionally been supported by mainline Christian denominations–appear to be a last stronghold against the complete individualization of American labor and the erosion of community accountability.

Andy Watts is an assistant professor of religion at Belmont University.

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