Catholicism opposes collectivist or state-controlled economic approaches. At the same time it opposes an unregulated market and rejects magical economics, as implied in metaphors like rising tide, invisible hand and trickle down. Throughout the industrial era and now in our post-industrial times, Catholicism draws upon its principles of participation and subsidiarity to advocate for an occupational order or solidarism. This concept is known in France as corporatism, in Belgium it is called delegates for personnel or in Germany it is co-determinism or works councils. In the United States Catholicism translated solidarism as industry council plan. (When I say Catholicism, I mean that Catholic doctrine includes economic principles. That doctrine is derived from Scripture, natural law and experience and it is available to all people of good will. However, I admit that few Catholics have ever heard about their social doctrine.)
Tom Geoghegan argues for an occupational order in his latest book, Only One Thing Can Save Us (The New Press, 2014). He draws upon the successful German economy and thus uses their terms: co-determined boards and works councils. In a previous book, Were You Born on the Wrong Continent? (The New Press, 2010), Geoghegan mentions the Catholic influence on the German model; though in this latest book he leaves out that connection.
Members of a company’s works council are elected from among shareholders and employees. Shareholders always are in the majority and a shareholder is always the chair. In Europe the employee members belong to a union, but this union factor is not essential to the solidarism model. A works council is more than an employee suggestion committee; it has some authority. The council is not involved in setting wages, pensions, health benefits and the like. It concentrates on day-to-day operations like scheduling, departmental flow and improvements to the production process or to delivery of services. The result is a more motivated workforce with lower levels of discontent. Of course, not every works council is perfect. However, the standard model of company directors detached from the actual work space is, as the economic collapse of 2008 amply taught us, flawed in practice and, says Catholicism, flawed in theory.
Geoghegan is not observing our scene from a reclining chair. He can be seen every day in a Chicago courtroom, a neighborhood luncheonette, a train station, a union hall, a community theater or a church basement. Geoghegan is aligned with many causes and charities around our city. His book seeks something that relieves government of some regulatory impulses yet at the same time something that puts brake shoes on ragged laissez faire capitalism. It comes wrapped with several provocative ideas:
- That under proper conditions unions might be better off not representing everyone in a workplace.
- That a college degree may not be the ideal for most young adults if our economy remains as it is.
- That nurses are uniquely poised to make our economy more inclusive.
- That credit card consumption cannot possibly lift our economy absent a prevailing wage for all families.
- That the Chicago Teachers Union is a positive influence (a topic of controversy around my city).
- That clumps of fast food workers and others who walk off the job for a short time put meaningful pressure on the Democratic Party and, to a degree, the Republican Party to address family life issues.
- Geoghegan loves our country and its legal, economic, political and educational systems. His ideas are the subject for a subsequent Working Catholic column.
Droel edits INITIATIVES (PO Box 291102, Chicago, IL 60629), a newsletter about faith and work.