Oren Cass’s book The Once and Future Worker is among the most important in living memory on the subject of labor from the conservative perspective. He instinctively gets that there is a pre-economic political relationship in which all economic activity takes place. Principally this means that whenever we meet in the marketplace, before any exchange takes place, the question of “justice” precedes the exchange.This is because we are rational and political animals and thus don’t meet one another in exchange the way we might a farm animal or an inert bit of metal.
But the political context in which we meet changes. For one thing it always exists in a relationship to the political activity of those who came before us. Our context is not a prehistoric “state of nature.” Neither the Hobbsian war of all against all nor the Rousseauian primitive idyll. Our nature is as rational political animals, but it is also bound in a particular time and place. As Americans, living and writing in 2022, we must address the problems we currently face.
Cass claims something is off in America. And the root of it is a political determination which perhaps fit American’s needs a hundred years ago but doesn’t fit them now. In Cass’ telling, on the one hand, the problems encompass various federal regulations governing employment from Social Security and Medicare to the Occupational Safety and Health Administration. But on the other hand, it is also the National Labor Relations Act, the 1935 law which governs nearly all labor unions in the United States.
In place of these sweeping laws he longs for a subsidiarity-oriented polity where problems are faced by negotiations on the shop floor between employer and employee rather than by distant, or antiquated, federal diktat. A noble dream. Since “unions” are both a legally frozen term (governed by the NLRA) and a politically fraught one (many voters have complicated feelings about them) his proposed solution is “co-ops.” Switching to “co-op” language is a useful rhetorical move given conservative opposition to “unions” but we should speak plainly to one another: his envisioned co-op is a union. Cass wants unions, just not these unions.
And that’s understandable. The current crop of unions, as he notes and as is well known, are a wholly owned political unit of the Democratic Party. They are a mirror image of the pro-life movement; they vote and donate only one way. And in just the same way that the pro-life movement is betrayed by the politicians whom they get into office so too the with the unions and the Democrats. It is telling that Joe Biden, ostensibly the most pro-union president in modern memory, has barely even attempted to champion the “Protecting the Right to Organize” Act, which would be the most significant piece of legislation for American labor since 1935. For better or worse, the PRO act would in fact change the political background in which our economic relations take place – but don’t hold your breath on the Democrats passing it. So Cass is right again – American unions are too politicized, too focused on things unrelated to the material conditions of their workers, and habitually betrayed by their political “allies.” But he also claims they are too antagonistic, and here I take issue.
Cass’s theory is that if federal labor law is burdensome, current unions are bad (and so far so conservative) then the solution moving forward is for unions to lay down their arms and agree to negotiate in a non-adversarial way. He cites northern European models for this. He does not, however, note that in many of those countries unionized workers get mandatory seats at the board of directors. Such rules indeed remove some of the antagonism from the lower level negotiations but it does so by moving much of that antagonism up to the board level or directly into the political sphere. Further, it is not clear that American corporations are lining up to offer their workers such a role in corporate governance – Cass doesn’t advocate for it either.
Cass offers a dream of asking labor to come to a non-adversarial negotiating table without any leverage… but my father taught me never to bring a knife to a gunfight. Part of politics is the recognition that it can indeed be adversarial, and supporting a worker who has been unjustly, and in some cases illegally, fired should stir up a sense of righteous indignation. Man is sinful and it is often the case that managers harbor petty grievances against workers. Normal managerial sadism is a thing, as is laziness and incompetence in employees. So too unions can steward their power poorly and make mountains out of molehills. But in this context the organization of a workforce into a unit which can elect champions to advocate for itself became law for a reason. Simply repealing the Wagner Act and gutting labor laws in the US, will do nothing for labor. Indeed, it could very well return us to the much more antagonistic blood-drenched struggle between working and ownership classes which got us into the situation we are in to start with.
I admire Cass’ work but want to suggest that our problem is not fundamentally over-regulation (though that is a problem) nor is it capital’s clever system of international arbitrage in the labor, materials, and tax-services markets (though this too is quite bad). Our problem is atomization. Can anything stand in the face of the ever fragmenting force of modern economic and technological changes? If California is any example the answer is a depressing but resounding: no. When gig workers at Uber and Doordash tried to appeal to standing labor law (that vaunted political context bequeathed to us by our ancestors) in order to get their work recognized as that of an “employee” the tech giants (and most Sacramento technocrats) banded together to utterly crush working citizens and pass Prop 22, developing a carve out which guarantees that the workers stay atomized. “Take what your betters decide to give you and get back to work.”
Without strong organizations, communication channels, trust networks, etc, we are heading into a future far darker than our present. I do not think “co-ops” will work. Management won’t generally accept it – why should they? – and employees, squeezed for productivity and fragmented and transitory as they are, aren’t being trained in the virtues needed to make them work. Perhaps a rejuvenated American Church could help generate those virtues in another generation. Such a generation, however, would not need co-ops as they would find the tools needed already exist – they would simply re-found the union movement. Legal tweeks may be needed (indeed they are, at the least unions should be required to set up separate PACs to engage in political campaigns) but many fundamental principles are already there, including recognition that employers have a certain power, but so do employees.
Unions deal in politics on the ground floor and politics is the process of deliberation. Deliberation does not happen via Vulcan mind meld. We deliberate under deadlines with credible consequences should we deliberate poorly, in an untimely fashion, or with reckless disregard for our interlocutors. In the face of profound atomization unions offer opportunities for tangible, and toothsome, solidarity.
Christians and unionists have more in common than either side likely realizes. For example the incredible pessimism of the current moment relative to our respective concerns. In “Fortress Unionism,” an essay cited by Cass, Rich Yeselson outlines the many woes of the modern union movement in prose reminiscent of an evangelical Christianity Today reporter discussing the rise of the ‘nones’ and the emptying of pews. Both fear the techno-dystopian future and what it might mean for their constituents. Yeselson’s “Fortress Unionism” strategy as applied to the church is shockingly similar to Rod Dreher’s Benedict Option. Focus on strengthening what remains so that it can remain, and wait (or pray) for revival. Strengthening what remains will be needed in the face of what is coming. I am grateful for Cass’s work and hope for a day when unionism is looked at fondly by both American conservatives and the American Church.