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Question 121: May a union leader bargain for what he or she considers unreasonable?

There are many fiercely competing independent companies in the industry I work in. Each employs between three and five hundred skilled workers who have organized their own union, and all these autonomous unions act independently, imitating management. There is a clear need for some cooperation. But, though I am union president at one of the larger companies, I have not been able to get the other unions to work with us.

This competitive situation underlies the problem I now face. In two months our contract will run out, and next week we start negotiations on a new one. If we simply renewed the present contract, pay and benefits would remain above average for the industry. But since the other companies and unions either already have completed their negotiations or have contracts that do not run out this year, management here is vulnerable. If we go out on strike, the competition will grab the company’s share of the market, and business may never recover. Knowing this, many of our people have become convinced that now is the time to demand a raise that would give us by far the highest pay in the industry, as well as changes in benefits to make our package as good as any.

I and my colleagues in the union’s leadership thought that such demands would be unreasonable. The company already has serious financial problems. If it gave in to the demands, it probably would be driven into bankruptcy before the new contract runs out. But when we tried to explain the situation to the membership at a general meeting, we immediately ran into heavy opposition, led by the man I replaced as president. Among other things, he seriously accused us of selling out to management, and, even though I got a vote of confidence in the current leadership, some people half believed the charge. As a result, I could not persuade enough of the rank and file that it would be foolish to demand too much, and the majority not only approved the demands but voted to go out on strike unless every one of them is met.

I then tried to win over some key people whose support I had expected but didn’t get. Only a few have changed their minds. Those who haven’t are mainly younger men who could relocate and think they can get jobs somewhere if the strike is prolonged or the company goes under. They may be right, but most of the people supporting me have more seniority and other ties here, and will face serious problems.

With negotiations about to begin, I do not know what to do. If I do not get management to give in to the unreasonable demands, I will call another meeting and try to get the membership to consider a compromise. But the opposition probably will prevail, and I am still convinced a strike will seriously damage the company and perhaps even destroy it. If I do get management to give in, the result will be even more certainly disastrous for the company. In either case, many of the rank and file are liable to lose more than they stand to gain—although too few of them see that. As the union’s leader, too, I’m expected to try to convince management our demands are reasonable—it would be in the company’s best interests to give in—but I cannot honestly make that argument. I’ve thought of resigning, but I’m sure the leader of the opposition would be elected to replace me. He will take a hard line with management right from the start: “Either agree to every one of our demands or we strike.” He will refuse even to consider a compromise and will call the people out on strike without giving them a chance to reconsider. Those who have supported me are entitled to that chance, and it would not be right to break faith with them.

It looks as if whatever I do will be wrong. Am I missing a way out?


The questioner is perplexed—both available options seem morally unacceptable (see LCL, 290–91). The perplexity’s main cause lies in the fact that at least one presupposed moral norm admitting of exception is mistakenly being regarded as absolute. While the union’s president is obliged to represent its membership in the negotiation, the questioner has not defined what that duty entails and must clarify it. If it can be fulfilled without asserting anything false or trying to obtain an unjust contract, the questioner may present the union’s demands. But if the questioner’s understanding of his or her duties as president precludes carrying them out in good conscience, he or she should resign and will not break faith with supporters by doing so.

The reply could be along the following lines:

Moral norms guide us in carrying out God’s wise and loving plan for our lives, and God never asks the impossible (see DS 1536/804). So, it cannot be true that whatever one does will be wrong. A morally acceptable option always is available. While none of your options is appealing, at least one surely is morally acceptable. Though the information you have provided is insufficient to judge what you should do, I hope the following considerations will clarify matters so you can reach a sound judgment by your own conscientious reflection.

You say you are supposed to try to convince management that the union’s demands are reasonable—that it would be in the company’s best interests to give in—but you cannot honestly argue for that. I take that to mean that ordinarily, at least, your duty in dealing with management is to put aside your personal views about what the union’s position should be and try to achieve the members’ objectives. However, the strictness of that duty depends on the terms of the commitment you made to the union’s members in accepting the office of president.

What exactly are the terms? The union’s written constitution and bylaws no doubt provide some indications, but previous presidents have interpreted them by their habitual practice. Insofar as the members have known how your predecessors carried out their duties, and have found it satisfactory, that clarifies and supplements the written formulation of duties. Perhaps you also made some further written or oral pledge that helped get you elected. You must consider all these things and then ask yourself whether, given the peculiarities of the situation, you can fulfill all your duties as president without lying or trying to bring about what you regard as unjust. If so, continue in office; if not, resign.

Given that your judgment and the majority’s vote are in conflict, how could you fulfill your duty to represent the union’s membership in the negotiation without asserting anything false or intending to obtain an unjust contract? I am not really sure, but I can sketch out some suggestions that might be helpful.

Even if you shared the majority’s position, you might well begin the negotiation with a simple recital of the relevant facts. The union’s membership has voted to make this set of demands and to strike if management does not meet them; since other companies will not be negotiating simultaneously, the company is vulnerable to a strike; and you believe the majority of your members will vote to carry out that threat rather than accept any counteroffer. Even though you regard the majority’s view as mistaken, you still can make that argument, and I doubt that as president you are obliged to give any other. An attempt to show the reasonableness of the demands—which surely would not convince management—could hardly represent the majority’s position more effectively. And honesty does not require that you state your personal judgment, only that you not lie about it.

What if management challenges the reasonableness of the demands? You might respond, truthfully, that arguing about that is hardly likely to be fruitful, and management must face and deal with reality (as, indeed, it must)—the union’s members want what they want and are determined to get it. Probably management will respond by reciting the company’s financial problems and pointing out that meeting the union’s demands would bankrupt it. You might truthfully report that the membership had been told all that before voting. You also might consider it compatible with your duty as president to ask management to document its claims as fully and clearly as possible, and promise to share that evidence with the members. Again, you might suggest to management that they make their case directly to the membership or, perhaps, propose some other cooperative way of getting the members to understand the company’s problems.

What if management presses you to express your personal judgment: “Do you really believe it would be in the workers’ own best interests for us to meet these demands?” It may be clear that management knows your judgment is in conflict with the majority’s position; if so, lying would undermine your credibility and effectiveness, and you will have to judge whether it would be better to admit the conflict or evade the question. You probably could do the latter in one of two ways—point out that your personal views are irrelevant inasmuch as your role in the negotiation is to represent the union’s members or simply repeat that the workers have made up their minds and are hardly likely to be impressed by anyone else’s views about what is in their best interests.

With this approach, you might present the union’s position very much as the former president would do if conducting the negotiation, though both his manner of acting and his intention would be entirely different from yours. He surely would be belligerent; his hard line would challenge management. You could be pleasant and calm; your dispassionate recital of relevant facts would invite a counterproposal that might win the majority’s acceptance. So, your precise intention could be to elicit such an offer. Your understanding of your duties might not prevent you, at some point, from suggesting terms the company could grant and the workers might accept—for example, substituting for the pay raise a profit-sharing arrangement offering workers the prospect of even greater compensation over the term of the contract without immediately placing an excessive financial burden on the company. But even if you do not think you may make such a suggestion, you might be able to cooperate with management in shaping any proposal it offers to increase its chances of being accepted.

Proceeding in this manner might lead management to agree to the union’s demands or in some other way concede more than it should. Still, you need not intend to elicit such an offer, and, if it were made, you could oppose its acceptance even as you conducted the meeting at which you presented it and the majority accepted it. You may succeed in eliciting an offer that is both compatible with the company’s survival and appealing, even in unexpected ways, to many of your members. If so, you can advocate accepting it, not least by pointing out how much many workers will lose if they go on strike, and perhaps you will succeed in averting the disaster you foresee.

On the other hand, your understanding of your duties might prevent you from undertaking the negotiation along the lines I have sketched or, at some point, from continuing as president. If so, you ought to resign. Since one never can have an obligation to sin, no commitment to anyone can require continuing in an office one believes one can no longer uprightly fulfill. In resigning, you would be choosing to avoid both violating your commitment as president to represent the union’s members and violating your conscience in fulfilling the office’s duties. You would not intend, but only accept as an unwanted but inevitable side effect, the bad consequences you foresee for both the company and the workers as a whole. Since you will have done all you ought to do on behalf of those who supported you, you will not be breaking faith with them. If they ought to have a chance to reconsider the decision to strike before they act on it, the person who replaces you, not you, will wrongly deny them that chance.

Finally, if you preside over a meeting at which the majority reaffirms the decision to strike, it seems to me you would be obliged to resign unless you become convinced the strike is just, for I do not see how a union’s president can preside over a strike without intending it to be carried on. If you resign then or earlier, you and other members of the union who regard the strike as unjust ought not to cooperate in it in any way that would involve intending either the strike itself or its success.

Indeed, in that event, you should consider the possibility that you ought to part company with the majority and offer to lead the minority in an effort to break the strike so as to save the company and the jobs of those who are less mobile. Union members owe one another solidarity not in the greedy pursuit of unjust objectives but in the reasonable pursuit of legitimate interests. By disclosing that you are considering leading an effort to break the strike, you might move enough of those in the majority to change sides so that the decision to strike could be reversed. Of course, you may well have other responsibilities that would exclude such a course. If not, however, both the union’s common good, which includes the authentic interests of all the participants in the company, and your loyalty to those who have supported you might require you to put your unique talents to work by assuming the odious role of leading strikebreakers.