ARE UNIONS OBSOLETE? Neuhaus V. O'Connor on Labor

By Higgins, George G. | Commonweal, November 3, 2000 | Go to article overview
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ARE UNIONS OBSOLETE? Neuhaus V. O'Connor on Labor


Higgins, George G., Commonweal


New York City's largest union of health-care workers has published a handsome twelve-page booklet to honor the memory of the late Cardinal John J. O'Connor and his commitment to workers. The booklet was produced by New York's Health and Human Service Union, which is Local 1199 of the Service Employees International Union (SEIU). It notes that O'Connor stressed his "bone-deep" commitment to working people and to the labor movement in his annual Labor Day Masses at Saint Patrick's Cathedral and in many of his speeches and writings. The cardinal was shown a preview of SEIU's booklet shortly before his death last May. The three labor officials who made the presentation told me that O'Connor was deeply gratified and moved almost to tears.

In the circles in which I move, reaction to the SEIU booklet has been enthusiastically favorable. I was not surprised, however, that some Catholics, and notably one of the cardinal's own New York priests, Father Richard John Neuhaus, have reacted negatively to the booklet. Neuhaus, editor of the monthly magazine First Things and author of several important books, said in an August interview in the National Catholic Register that the cardinal's support of labor unions was a weakness rather than a strength. "It was one of the few areas in which we did not see eye to eye," Neuhaus told the Register. He claimed that the kind of class-based ideology--labor vs. management, boss vs. worker--which, in his view, has historically shaped American labor, is now obsolete.

Neuhaus never publicly spoke this way about the cardinal's stand on labor issues while the cardinal was alive. I think it is a great pity that he held his fire until it was too late for O'Connor to respond. It would have been highly instructive and jolly good fun to watch two such combative and articulate controversialists go at it in a wide-open public debate about the role of unions in our economy.

The reason I was not surprised by Neuhaus's interview is that, whatever his relationship with the cardinal, he has said more than once in his own writings that the American labor movement as we have come to know it is obsolete. Because one of his published articles on this subject was a negative response to something I had written, he will not be surprised if I reopen the issue.

I strongly disagree with Neuhaus's stand on labor. To begin with, it is misleading to say, as he does, that the declining number of workers who belong to unions do so only because "closed union shops give them no choice." That may have been a typographical error. "Closed union shops" are illegal and nonexistent in the United States.

Second, one of the most important reasons for the decline in union membership today is the fact that our federal and state labor legislation is badly outmoded and is heavily stacked against workers who are trying to exercise their right to organize.

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