Is secularism what ails labor?

On this Labor Day (side note: It’s also been one year since we started this blog – huzzah!), let’s take a moment to ponder this column by former Miami Herald religion editor Adon Taft, who speculates that the problems of organized labor stem at least in part from the movement’s divorce from its historical roots as a religion-infused movement:

Of the 10 holidays recognized by the federal government, the future status of two – Labor Day and Christmas – may be short-lived. And, perhaps surprisingly, for the same reason: religion … Christmas has become secularized in an America where religious commitment is down and the number of the religiously unaffiliated is up. The labor movement, meanwhile, has forgotten the religious roots that propelled the movement that won a national holiday.

This is not necessarily a new observation, although it’s one that seems strangely counterintuitive at time when some of the loudest voices in the religion sector are avowedly anti-worker. And yet the labor movement both in the U.S. and Britain used to draw much of its strength from Christian and Jewish groups.

The sword cuts both ways, of course; the historian Lew Daly recognizes that the communal, corporatist nature of labor unions is firmly rooted in European Catholic and Catholic-influened traditions, but doesn’t note that the extreme liberalism of the U.S., in which the individual as seen as the basis of all society, is fundamentally a Protestant notion. Instead, he locates the country’s historic hostility to unions and to communalism in general in the secularism that liberals today insist is so endangered:

It is no coincidence that the country with the strictest separation of church and state also has the lowest collective bargaining rates. In the United States, religious bodies were increasingly excluded from public life even as collective bargaining, as a public right, went into terminal decline.

It is also no coincidence that those countries with the highest rates of collective bargaining also have either established or semi-established churches (Norway, Sweden, Finland), state-supported churches (Germany, Austria, Belgium), or strong constitutional principles of religious association and public involvement (the Netherlands)—and the latter four, all in the category of corporatist or partly corporatist welfare states, have extensive church-state partnerships in which religious bodies are sanctioned and often funded to provide public services.

Daly’s essay in particular is worth reading in full, for his explanation of the brief moment when papal social teaching informed U.S. economic policy, and how that was a brief moment in a longer history full of hostility to the notion of collective rights. I don’t agree with all his points, but it’s indisputable that religion played a major role in shaping the U.S. labor movement, from Catholic theorists to independent Protestant churches that doubled as union halls in the Appalachian coalfields.

There’s a reason that nearly every successful social movement in U.S. history, from the Revolution to abolition to the emancipation of women to (briefly) prohibition to civil rights has been steeped in religious ideas and models of cooperative action. Americans speak the language of religion; the right surely knows this, which is part of the reason they’ve been winning for 40 years. When will the labor movement remember it?



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6 Responses to Is secularism what ails labor?

  1. sharon says:

    “Extreme individualism” is not the exclusive property of American liberals. American conservatives have been using it very effectively to beat back any “socialist” movement, from education, health care, and housing, to food assistance and jobs programs. And they have cherry-picked bible verses to back them up. Of course, it doesn’t apply to the least individualistic man-made construction, the Corporation. They can’t throw financial assistance at the Corporations fast enough.

    I don’t know where most American Catholics stand on individualism v collectivism. They’ve been co-opted for so many decades on the abortion issue that their voices are all but drowned out when it comes to any other issue such as immigration, health care, labor, or education. I think American Catholicism is very different from traditional European Catholicism or Latin American Catholicism, when it comes to labor v capital, so bringing religion back into the picture won’t really advance the cause of labor. If there are any voices, they are drowned out by American Protestants and their “Judeo-Christian work ethic” and rugged individualism. Just my opinion.

  2. Gordonzola says:

    I am not really sure how “labor” is secular or “steeped in religious ideas.” Many locals, for example, are steeped in the religion of the folks they are made up of (any local made up of mostly Latina/os for example is bound to have Catholic leanings). If we are talking national rhetoric of labor leaders, there may be a point to be made, but labor has shown no signs of hostility to religion that I can think of.

    It seems to me that — beyond the right wing attacks — the biggest problem for labor is the breakdown of community (partly through outsourcing). Cohesive communities (whether ethnically homogeneous or not) supporting unions with collective action and often shared the same religious beliefs as a whole. I don’t know of any evidence that “Labor” intentionally divorced itself from religion, but maybe I am ignorant to it. I can think of counterhistorical examples where union movements were not made cohesive by shared religious beliefs, however, and am not sure how much of this view of “Labor’s roots” I am buying into.

    • full enployment? says:

      The role of labor as influenced by Catholic immigrants is well established. In Europe the relationship is tighter with variations of Christian Democrats in politics. Granted Europe’s health care is more a product of two World wars than anything else. Religion acted as a facilitator and reinforces those shared social values and labor rights in the classroom today.

      US unions? It could be said the teachers union is anti religious when opposing vouchers for parochial schools and when opposing bible study in school when not taking a positive activist stance on teaching religious values and prayer in schools.

  3. Dan Blinn says:

    Both advocates and opponents of the abolitionist movement and the suffragist movement relied upon religious arguments. By contrast, Freethinkers were major backers of both movements. The American Humanist movement is solidly pro labor. The problem is not secularism but conservatism, which is decidedly anti-secular. Liberal Protestants and Catholics are allies of Secular Humanists, who share their values even they rely upon Humanist philosophy as the source of those values.

  4. full enployment? says:

    The problem with US labor is the division between organized and the private sector. Trotsky warned labor that the minute they become the new oligarchies they are doomed.

    In CT we’ve seen labor play the stale “single payer” card rather than the “one policy to heal them all card” in order to protect their dues structure and gold Cadillac policies at the expense of “disorganized” labor.

    In that sense religion could have helped right the rudder with issues like full employment and a higher minimum wage and mandatory 5% matching 401ks supplanting the oligarchic collective bargaining model.

  5. sharon says:

    “mandatory 5% matching 401ks”

    My first full-time job was with a company with its roots in Europe. Each year we received a share of the profits. After 6 years, I left with over $14k, no small potatoes in 1981. That’s real socialism, the kind most American workers would gladly sign on for, I’d wager.