After working for unions full time for twelve years and having studied them for an equal length of time, I have become convinced that the greatest threat unions face today is their corruption by the mores of the society that they once had expected to reform. May I hasten to add though, that there is nothing unique in labor’s defection. Organized religion is equally guilty of watering down its prophetic heritage.
Here illustration is better than argument. During the first weeks in June, I spent a day visiting my old union friends in the new A.F.L.-C.I.O. building in Washington, D. C. These were men with whom I had worked, employed and taught. When I entered their offices and the conversation had moved away from the conventional, each one in his own way apologized for the ostentation of the environment and ended by expressing a longing for the days of their youth when they marched and picketed and sang labor songs, instead of listening to the piped-in strains of the semiclassics.
Marks Of Distinction
And yet they are not seriously to be blamed. The workers in our culture who employ my friends, and elect their bosses, want it that way. Big offices, sleek secretaries, glass-topped desks, and black limousines are marks of success in our culture. And why, the workers ask, shouldn’t our men live as well as the bosses? “There is nothing too good for the workers the workers employ” may sound a bit cynical, but it is a deeply revealing statement. Perhaps there is no clearer statement of the point of view than that uttered by Delegate Andy Rapchok when he was arguing for a $40,000 a year salary for Walter Reuther (which incidentally was refused). “Now if we are going to be a bunch of cheapskates on this floor, how in h—do we expect the companies to give us concessions when we meet with them? The first thing they will throw back at us is ‘You don’t pay your leaders, but you want us to pay your men!’ If we are going to have leadership the same as the industrialists do, we should be men enough to pay as they do. I, too, say $40,000 spent right on down the line.” Incidentally, labor leaders are notoriously good speech makers!
Trend In Union And Church
But now, lest I seem too hard on the labor movement, may I hasten to add that I belong to a mortgage-free church that installed an air conditioner this summer at a total cost of $10,000 instead of hiring a director of religious education. The most charitable reason for the action is that the Board of Trustees wished to restore the atmosphere of the catacombs, which I understand were cool.
It is my unwillingness to accept this trend in unions and in churches which produces all the conflict in me. Perhaps because I am a sectarian, the son of generations of sectarians who were forever in tension with the mores of the world. Now it is my thesis that the labor movement and the church best serve their age when they are a transforming influence, when they are in tension with the political, economic, and moral values of their time, in tension, if you please, with both Republicans and Democrats, who, from my point of view, are so little different that to make a choice between them is of no significance.
Rise Of The Labor Giant
Now, from this point of view, let us look at one of the most significant events in labor’s recent history: the merger of the American Federation of Labor and the Congress of Industrial Organizations. Consolidation is the order of the day. Corporations are consolidating, and in order to match corporation strength unions must do likewise. The rationale for weight and counterweight is understandable, but from my sectarian point of view there is real tragedy in the fact that labor unity was possible. A tragedy because the A.F.L. and the C.I.O. were so much alike. The C.I.O. in twelve short years had become like the A.F.L., a bureaucratic organization more interested in maintaining the status quo than in challenging either the state or the economic order.
Of course, one of the avowed aims of the united movement is the organization of the unorganized. (Incidentally, there has been no appreciable gain in organizing labor’s ranks since the early forties, and last year saw more workers reject unions in Labor Board elections than in any previous year.) To state it bluntly, $125 per week organizers with expense accounts and driving Buick Roadmasters are not doing as good a job as the itinerants with a vision did in the thirties. But to churchmen this should not be news, for churchmen know that churches grow when they have a lay ministry and a congregation that tithes, sings, and testifies. To put the proposition clearly, then, in labor we have the decline of the local union, the proliferation of the giant international, the rise of the monolithic power structure and the denial of any concept of a loyal opposition that suggests a compromise of personal power or of immediate political success.
The Tension In Our Midst
Recently, I participated in two strike situations, the one directly, the other vicariously. The first was a strike of workers, members of the Carpenters and Joiners Union, against the Peabody school furniture factory in North Manchester, Indiana. If ever a group of men were the victims of paternalism and exploitation, these men were it. Our son, a senior in Manchester College, helped organize the union because he had worked in the plant, knew the men, and sympathized with them. While the strike was in progress, the Carpenters Union leaders gave the local union president and vice-president a chance to earn a little money washing their Buicks. Actually, there was little difference in the way of life of the union’s professionals and the corporation head. And it wasn’t that difference which influenced me to join my son on the picket line. It was instead, my identification with the oppressed and browbeaten in this Brethren stronghold where students discuss the strategies of Christian love in East-West tensions and have no answer to the tensions in their midst.
Then there was the steel strike, a strike by agreement, where factories closed and workers stayed home; where decisions were made in the stratosphere of a New York air-conditioned office between the giants of industry and union. Here there was no drama, not even the drama of pathos that existed in the North Manchester strike. Everything was impersonal. No loves and no hates, except official ones. And there really couldn’t be, for both management and labor were the children of the depersonalization of bigness.
It is because of this and many other previous experiences that I have formulated the question which haunts me more than any other: “How can we give meaning to our Judeo-Christian ethic in a society that is increasingly complex, with decisions ever farther removed from the persons affected by them?” Translated it means, can we maintain personal values in the “great society”? There are times, I confess, that I doubt it. But I continue trying just the same.
Moral Economic Choice
And my emphasis is largely in the area of economic choice, for I believe that our most significant moral choices are budgetary, both governmental and personal.
To be specific, the moral choice is not in the amount we spend, but for what we spend. For example, inflation for military purposes, in my way of thinking, is one thing; relief for the suffering of the world is another. Personal debt for the education of one’s children seems to me more justifiable than for a newer and bigger car.
It is because of this conviction that I tend to disagree with the drives of the powerful pressure groups in our compensatory state. (A compensatory state is one that rewards or withholds rewards from pressure groups in proportion to their power or lack of it.)
Beyond The One And The Many
It is the confusion of the private good with the public good in these organizations which troubles me. Or as I tell my students who would become experts for big business, big labor, or agriculture, “Go ahead, but if you want to survive don’t insist that there may be larger interests involved than business, labor, or agriculture.” Business wants the free market, but it wants subsidy and protection; labor wants freedom to bargain but it wants to bargain protected by a friendly government; and the farmer, we all know, produces our indispensables, food and fiber.
Most of us inside and outside of pressure groups are the victims of the thesis that the best way to serve the public interest is to serve the private interest. This I do not believe! By the very nature of their privateness such interests do not and cannot concern themselves with the larger whole.
Nor, as important as economic security is—and I joined the Teachers Union because I wanted books as well as hamburgers—do I believe that more is always the answer. For example, there is no positive correlation between the quality of teaching and the pay of teachers or the public responsibility of elected officials and their salaries.
Is More Always Ideal?
Thus, I belong to the school of thinkers inclined to ask who won the victory in the recent steel strike. What happened in those 36 days that made them necessary? Why was there such a general acceptance of the inevitable inflation that is the aftermath of all such strikes? (The price of steel is being raised $8.50 per ton as I write.) Perhaps it is an indication of my age, but I remember the days when people used to seriously suggest that the wage-price profit line should be held and that there were profoundly moral arguments for so doing. But now the escalator only goes up! I wish I could be convinced! Unconvinced, I ask, was the larger interest served? Were the steel workers’ interests served? For they will get a small share of the increased cost in wages, and the lion’s share will go to the corporation in increased profits. More, in other words, isn’t always the answer, even if Samuel Gompers affirmed it as labor’s goal.
The mood of America, however, is not a questioning one. We have peace and prosperity for practically everyone but farmers and automobile salesmen. All the mass media in America proclaim that paradise is just around the corner and will be attained when we all spend not only what we earn but a little bit more. The other day I read that 75 per cent of our spendable income, that in the $4,500 to $7,500 per year bracket, was all spent in the month it was earned, except for 21/2 per cent. The article didn’t say but implied that 100 per cent might be more ideal. Now as an unreconstructed individualist, I wonder what happens to a man who hasn’t enough of a reserve (say about one month’s wages) to walk into his boss’s office and tell him to drop dead.
Life By Monthly Installments
Here almost all Americans are in the same predicament, for they are all in debt—$36,000,000,000 in short-term loans. About $16,000,000,000 in automobiles alone. Averaged out, this is about $800 per family. Hence, Americans no longer think of saving to buy. Such thinking is obsolete. The question now is “Can I meet the payments?”
The worker is no different from all other Americans. His culture emphasizes the relation between “things” and happiness, and he wants to be happy. Furthermore, the American worker is not class-conscious. He believes that the middle-class way is his way, too.
At this point, I want to re-emphasize my thesis. The American labor movement has been (and is being) corrupted by the mores of the society it once would reform. And my conclusion is that society’s values will win, for there are not enough influences in our society to produce the counteracting trends.
Nevertheless, it is my ambition to continue working as if there were a possibility. In season and out of season, I challenge the labor movement to find alternatives to the stabilization of our production short of war and preparation for war. Here again I reflect my sectarian bias (Brethren-Mennonite) and am troubled when I read in the labor press that the Hudson-Packard workers have petitioned for defense orders to keep their jobs intact. And in the public press that Curtiss-Wright will stabilize Studebaker and South Bend with $100,000,000 of airplane (military) contracts. Somehow I wanted the labor movement to come up with alternative suggestions.
But why should they? The Democratic platform calls for more of the same. And the churches aren’t far behind
It is here that I finally left C.I.O. I could no longer accept the idea that I was contributing to the stabilization of employment through means that were so anachronistic. For example, arguing that the moral choices we make in economic decisions are centered in what the funds are used for, I persisted in asking why we couldn’t get more for foreign aid, for the hungry of the world, not to mention our own. Or more for slum clearance and parks and playgrounds. Even those who would debate these specific uses of money, or suggest alternatives, must feel the force of the argument.
I asked these questions always conscious that although certain Americans were poor compared to those above them in income, compared to their counterparts in the world they were rich. The Jericho road, I am told, is a tortuous one; it is a long one as well.
Leaven In The Lineup
Likewise, I persist in challenging the movement in every way I know on how to involve in it people who are idealistic enough to survive the resulting buffeting. And in season and out, I stress the structural and constitutional changes that would facilitate participation by union’s rank and file. At present, I have between thirty and forty students active in the labor movement. I don’t know if they will maintain the idealism I tried to indoctrinate them with, but even if they lost most of it, they will be a leaven in an increasingly secularized lineup. Frankly, I think democracy in a trade union is impossible without the tensions precipitated by ideological conflict, caucus, and party. (It is ironical indeed that only two international unions have contested elections, the one by constitutional provision, the other by ideological factions.) Likewise, I would place constitutional limitations on officeholders, and return all union officials to the ranks from which they rose. I believe that workers under such circumstances would be more inclined to participate, for they would be more consciously determining their destiny.
When I was Research and Educational Director of the C.I.O., our offices at C.I.O. were constantly being renovated. On one occasion all department heads were given glass-top desks. For some perverse reason I liked my old leather-topped one and insisted on keeping it, only to upset the building management. Their instructions were to increase the status of all department heads by one glass-topped desk. “It is awful to have an extra glass-topped desk,” I was informed, and didn’t I realize that my refusal to give up my old desk reflected on the entire C.I.O.? I didn’t and I don’t!
But from that day I was out of step!
Kermit Eby is Professor in the Division of Social Sciences, University of Chicago. After acquiring the A.B. degree from Manchester College, Mr. Eby, then a high school principal, pursued graduate studies at the University of Chicago from 1929 to 1931. A minister in the Church of the Brethren, he served from 1945 to 1948 as Director of Education and Research for the C.I.O. He is a frequent contributor to national religious and labor publications
Have something to add about this? See something we missed? Share your feedback here.
Our digital archives are a work in progress. Let us know if corrections need to be made.
Subscribe to Christianity Today and get access to this article plus 65+ years of archives.
- Home delivery of CT magazine
- Complete access to articles on ChristianityToday.com
- Over 120 years of magazine archives plus full access to all of CT’s online archives
- Learn more
More from this Issue
Read These Next
- TrendingJunia, the Female Apostle Imprisoned for the GospelWhat Scripture tells us about the story of this “outstanding” Jewish woman in chains.Português
- From the MagazineJohn 3:16: So Loved, So FamiliarWe need fresh eyes for our faith’s basic teachings, no matter how long we’ve studied the Bible.简体中文繁體中文
- RelatedInstead of Becoming a Pastor, I Minister as a PlumberWhile praying and turning wrenches, I discovered a rich Christian life.
- Editor's PickAfter Nashville, Moral Numbness Is Our EnemyShootings have become normal to the American public. But as Christians, we know better.