Happy May Day

While many of you in the USA will be nursing PBS hangovers, we are celebrating Vappu, or Finnish May Day.

It is a national holiday, and the main focus is on spring. Everyone turns out to the parks to picnic, wearing their white graduation caps. Traditional foods include herring, sausages, homemade doughnuts and sima, a fruity homemade near-beer (it translates as mead, if that does something for you). As usual, there is also plenty of real alcohol flowing. It’s a jolly day to enjoy the approach of summer and kick back with your family.

But there is also the political aspect of May Day. The Communists march, the Socialists have big rally in the main square, and even the Center Party makes sure the workers know they’re loved and appreciated. It’s great fun.

I love this stuff. It reminds me of my grandfather, who was a 1930s Wisconsin Socialist and raised his family on the necessity and correctness of labor unions. In turn, my father made sure we kids knew about the glorious struggles of the working man and woman, and both of my parents, in addition to being very active in the church, were active in the teacher’s union. Feel free to gasp.

I always assumed that the Mormon aversion to labor unions was part of the general conservative position of most church members, which my parents generally took in stride. I was surprised to find that general conference talks were given in the 1930s and 40s against closed shops, and that in 1965 the First Presidency sent Mormon legislators a letter urging them to vote for a bill that would safeguard so-called ‘right to work’ laws. [1]

The doctrinal support for such a position is weak, to say the least. The rationale is that union security in contracts violates free agency. (I have not seen the original talk or letter, so free agency might be used as a labor term, not a doctrinal one.) I would suggest this is a limited and politically expedient use of the doctrine of agency. Employers impose all kinds of restrictions on their employees that limit their choices much more than a closed shop.

I look skeptically on a church leader speaking about labor issues: the church was, directly and indirectly, a major employer in Utah, so they have had an economic interest in minimizing the power of labor unions. On top of that, most church members and leaders in the USA are middle class and don’t face the issues which strong labor unions address, or they benefit from a lack of labor organization. While anti-union messages have dried up since the 1960s, it is an element of Mormon culture still going strong.

Mind you, there are valid economic and historical arguments against labor unions … that’s a different discussion. I just question the doctrinal argument.

Anyhow, something to think about on the International Workers’ Day. Enjoy.

[1] Davies, J. Kenneth. ‘The Right to Work Movement.’ Utah History Encyclopedia. Online resource. [http://www.media.utah.edu/UHE/r/RIGHTTOWORK.html] Accessed 1.5.2007.


  1. Kevin Barney says:

    Here in Chicago on May Day there is going to be a huge march and rally for immigrants’ rights, so we’ll be partaking a little bit of the spirit you’re experiencing there.

  2. Unions are largely irrelevant in private sector in the US. The numbers who are are in Unions are in free fall. I believe its down to 7-8% now.

    The exception is the public sector. Teachers Unions, Fed workers etc.

    I can count on one hand the number of people I have known who are in a union as an adult. With the exception of my kids school teachers.

    4 actually. Only one of them works for a large corporation and performs factory work.
    2 pilots, a train conducter, and one guy on the assembly line at Lockheed Martin. He makes 100K plus.

  3. bbell,
    Maybe in Texas. In New York, everyone in the arts (actors, musicians, stagehands, etc.) are union members, all private sector. Most factory workers are members of unions. Grad students have tried to unionize, and adjunct professors at NYU may or may not be unionized (I can’t remember).

    As Norbert points out, it depends on your location and your socioeconomic status as to whether you’re around unionized employees. I admit that I don’t know a lot of people personally who are unionized, but as an attorney, my coworkers won’t be unionized, and I don’t interact as much as I’d like with artists, etc.

  4. (Which, as Norbert points out, may not be a good thing. There are arguments for and against unions, and I agree with your point that union membership is falling quickly in the US, which is also good and bad)

  5. Sam,

    I think that in a international marketplace US companies with a heavily unionized workforce are at a disadvantage for the following 2 reasons.

    1. Costs
    2. Flexibility

    A case study would involve comparing a Japanese non union auto plant in the south vs one of the big three plants up north.

  6. bbell,
    I’m not disagreeing with you—I’m not a big fan of unions for the flexibility issue you cite. But I’m saying that there are significant numbers (relatively) of private sector workers who are unionized.

    In an international marketplace, I think that I would want to be unionized myself, if only to make it harder for my employer to up and move to a country with lower labor costs. So I am sympathetic to the desire to unionize. I think it’s anticompetitive, and uses a model that’s not applicable in today’s US economy, but, given the lack of loyalty by employers to their employees (and vice versa), it would probably be worth developing some sort of protection, similar to what unions at the turn of the previous century, accorded workers, but that works better in our modern economy.

    And happy May Day!

  7. Happy May Day, Sam. The lawyer’s union is a pipe dream, but together we can keep it alive!

  8. I’m all for unions, but when the UK Association of University Teachers decided to boycott Israeli universities, I worry about mission-creep and lame politicking. Stick to making sure academics get paid more!

  9. Mike Parker says:

    Workers of the world, unite!

    You have nothing to lose but your chains!

  10. May Day is our anniversary.

    Norbert, you asked about the doctrinal argument. We’re doctrinally in favor of work; we even have parables about it! To the extent that unions create unemployment (which they can), one can see an obvious link. It is not obvious that the Church would choose to come out and make statements about the matter. But I guess that is what revelation is for– to figure those things out.

    I think (but don’t know) that it has a lot to do with the freedom to work. Unions seek to prevent non-union people from working. We are not generally in favor of one person making it illegal for another person to work and earn money, as long as it is done honestly. Unions can be great for the people in them, but in general this is done at the expense of those outside (and typically poorer) than them.

    Add to that the strong union ties to communism back in the day, which has a long history of being opposed by the Church, and I think you have a more compelling explanation than claiming the Church was acting to keep down their wage bill.

  11. Oh, and happy Law Day, too!

    (Steve, I’ll do my part—re: Frank, in law we try to keep non-lawyers from working (in the law, anyway) too by credentialing, so having a lawyers’ union can’t be more wicked than just lawyering, anyway.)

  12. Sam,

    Yup, credentialing sometimes can be valuable, and sometimes is just a way of keeping other people out of the field. Sometimes it’s both.

  13. Norbert, we celebrate May Day in our family as a transplanted Easter holiday–we like some of the seasonal/pagan stuff associated with Easter, but don’t like the way it intrudes upon the religious part of the day, and unfortunately Mormonism lacks the sort of liturgical calendar which would enable the two to be somewhat more seamlessly be wedded together. So we’ve just up and relocated many secular Easter observances to May Day. We decorate, the kids make a maypole, they go on a hidden egg hunt, etc. It’s fun.

  14. Frank,

    “We are not generally in favor of one person making it illegal for another person to work and earn money, as long as it is done honestly.”

    True enough, I suppose, and maybe the general doctrinal principle behind such even holds (some) water. But the qualifying phrase “as long as it is done honestly,” if used as part of general argument against unions, which presumably get in the way of “honest work,” seems to me to be massively selective. The church is fully in favor of it being able to prevent qualified janitors, academics, accountants, etc. from being able to work and earn money at some of its own facilities if they fail certain ecclesiastical requirements (see Corporation of the Presiding Bishop v. Amos); in their–I think correct–view, limited religious discrimination in employment is not to be considered an interference with “honest work,” since it is based on valid constitutional and/or political principles involved in creating a certain kind of work environment with certain broader social goals. Presumably, similar things can be said about valid laws against employing illegal immigrants, valid laws requiring fair hiring practices, and so forth. So, see that unions are still legal in the U.S. (and assuming that workers put them together legally) it appears to me that hauling out a general doctrine defense of contextless (and therefore presumably that-much-less protected and situated within society) forms of “work” as part of a criticism of them is either 1) pretty narrow, or else 2) the first step in a general criticism of all forms of credentialism, borders, guilds, religious requirements, employment selectivity, etc.

  15. Norbert, it is strange to make an argument on the basis of what is legal when the whole point of the objection is the desire to change the law (the “freedom to work” legislation). I don’t think it is a question of legality, but of what should be.

    As for the Church’s religious requirements, I would suggest that were the Church the only employer in an area, they would be much more flexible about this requirement. I’m curious, do you have to be a member to work at DMBA? Alternatively, many of the jobs you mention, actually, have as part of them an obvious rationale for why worker productivity is enhanced in some way by having them be a member. This is not the case of union employment per se. Unions often do provide useful training, but then it is the training that should form the basis of the restiricton, not the union membership.

    Compare the religious restriction to unions, which collectively wished to ban from all employment anyone unwilling to join them (hence the broad nature of many unions that crossed over lots of employers and even industries). And they wish to raise wages, which often leads to unemployment. Unions do not create much in the way of jobs, mostly they attempt to restrict them. Employers, such as the Church, are actually engaging in the blessed entrepreneurial task of employing people. Thus there are substantive and obvious differences between the two kinds of restrictions. As for illegal immigration, what, if anything, has the Church said against immigration?

    Now, you may disagree or think that the differences seem small to you, but that is why one hopes that decisions made by the FP about what matters and what doesn’t are ratified by prayer and inspiration.

  16. I’m sorry, I put Norbert at the top of that comment but I was actually responding to Dr. R. Fox

  17. Don’t forget May 5th either … the Cinqo de Mayo is also Danish Freedom Day (so I learned this week). The heroes of the Danish Resistance in WWII are in their 80’s now. Let’s remember them as incredibly courageous patriots and bona fide members of the Greatest Generation.