Labor unions and Catholic social teaching

First slide

It's been a tough half-century for labor unions. Membership has dropped significantly, and right-to-work laws have eroded union power. The Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) reported that in 2011, union membership for wage and salaried workers was 11.8 percent. In 1983, the first year BLS gathered data, the rate was 20.1 percent. Both those numbers are a far cry from the heyday of union membership in the 1950s when, according to the Associated Press, 32 percent of workers were union members.

Right-to-work laws have passed in 23 states, the latest being Michigan in December. Michigan is a heavily unionized state, the home to the United Auto Workers union founded in Detroit in 1935. Events do not bode well for labor.

A right-to-work law prohibits an established union from requiring an employee to join the union or to pay union dues or fees as a condition of employment.

Proponents of these laws argue that the right to work is a basic human right of freedom of association.

"No one should be forced to pay tribute to a union in order to get or keep a job" is the motto of the National Right to Work Committee, headquartered in Springfield, Va. The group was founded in 1955 to fight compulsory unionism.

Opponents of right-to-work, like Glenmary Father John S. Rausch, call the laws "right-to-work for less." They say that these laws basically give people who do not pay dues a free ride. They get union benefits without paying for them.

Catholic social teaching

The Catholic Church has a history of support for the rights of unions and union members beginning in the 1800s.

The 19th century was a period of great social upheaval. The Industrial Revolution was in full force and the increased industrialization sometimes pitted workers against owners.

Socialism, as proposed by Karl Marx and Frederick Engels in the 1848 treatise The Communist Manifesto, called for an uprising of oppressed workers - the proletariat - against the owners of the means of production - the bourgeois. It was class warfare and it sometimes turned violent.

In 1891, in response to the plight of the worker and the spread of socialism, Pope Leo XIII wrote the church's seminal social justice encyclical, "Rerum Novarum" (on capital and labor).

The encyclical addressed the "misery and wretchedness pressing so unjustly on the majority of the working class." It also spoke out against the socialist tide sweeping the globe, calling it "manifestly against justice." Pope Leo said that socialism's belief in a community of goods can only hurt workers and is against the natural rights of man.

Since 1891, the church has reinforced continually its support of unions and the right of workers to organize. In 1931, on the 40th anniversary of "Rerum Novarum," Pope Pius XI issued "Quadragesimo Anno" (on reconstructing the social order), reinforcing the issues presented by Pope Leo and using the term "social justice" for the first time.

Pope Paul VI released an apostolic letter, "Octogesima Adveniens" ("The Coming Eightieth"), on the 80th anniversary of "Rerum Novarum" that said that Pope Leo's encyclical was the message "that continues to inspire action for social justice."

Blessed John Paul II authored "Laborem Exercens" ("On Human Work") and "Centesimus Annus" ("The Hundredth Year"), both emphasizing the importance of labor unions. In "Laborem Exercens," Blessed John Paul calls unions "a mouthpiece for the struggle for social justice."

In 2009, Pope Benedict XVI issued "Caritas in Veritate" ("Charity in Truth"), which reiterated the right of workers to associate in labor unions.

There have been pastoral letters by U.S. bishops including, "Economic Justice for All:

Pastoral Letter on Catholic Social Teaching and the U.S. Economy" in 1986 that stated, "Labor unions help workers resist exploitation."

Differing Catholic views

For more than 120 years, the church has been a proponent of a worker's right to organize for better pay and working conditions, but there are diverse opinions on what that means in the 21st century.

Father Robert A. Sirico, president of the Acton Institute for the Study of Religion and Liberty in Grand Rapids, Mich., said that, yes, the church works for the right of people to organize and join unions, but it is not carte blanche.

He said that sometimes unions, especially public-service unions, support positions that are contrary to Catholic teaching on issues such as contraceptives, abortion and even gay marriage.

Father Sirico also said that workers attitudes toward unions have changed.

"The worker says 'We are better served outside of unions,'" he said, adding that it comes down to the right of the worker to associate freely.

"It's the worker competing against the worker," he said. The worker is selling his services.

Father Sirico added that "Rerum Novarum" must be viewed in context and understood in relation to the times - the Industrial Revolution.

Retired AFL-CIO economist Greg Woodhead said that right-to-work laws are designed to weaken unions. He said right-to-work laws give people a free ride like negotiated benefits and wages.

"If you get the benefits, you should pay," he said. "It's an issue of fairness."

Woodhead said that the church has supported unions in the past and that it should continue.

"I don't think you can possibly do enough," he said of the church's stand for worker rights.

Father Rausch, who lives and works in rural Kentucky and has been an active union organizer and supporter, knows the positive influence a union can have on the lives of workers.

He said that unions work for the common good, and he echoed the sentiment that right-to-work means work for less. He said it gives workers less power.

"(Unions) represent a structure that has the ability to put in place the basic human rights of workers," he said.

Father Rausch said unions helped create Social Security and the eight-hour day.

"Wage justice cannot be left to the free market," he said. "We have diminished the worker and exalted the stockholder."

Work, he said, is part of being a human being, and all work is dignified.

Martin Luther King Jr. expressed that sentiment in 1968 when he addressed strikers in Memphis, Tenn.: "For the person who picks up our garbage, in the final analysis, is as significant as the physician. All labor has worth."

© Arlington Catholic Herald 2013