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?