The Working Catholic: Right to Work
by Bill Droel
The pastoral teaching of Catholic bishops in our country has “consistently supported the right of workers to organize for the purpose of collective bargaining,” wrote Anthony Picarello Jr. to the Supreme Court this past January. Picarello is the bishops’ general counsel in Washington, D.C.
Bishop John Carroll (1735-1815) became the first U.S. Catholic bishop in 1789, following a stateside election. (That is another story.) From that day until now, no U.S. bishop has ever compromised our Catholic doctrine by supporting a so-called right to work measure—neither for public sector nor private sector workers. Quite the opposite to expressing support, explains Picarello, bishops have “been very inimical to right to work laws.”
Why does Catholic doctrine support the right of workers to organize and specifically why does it oppose right to work measures? Those measures, Picarello continues, represent a “general concept of freedom that [is] too absolute and extreme.”
Put it this way: A Catholic cannot be a libertarian. Freedom is precious. In Catholicism freedom means freedom to exchange views with others, freedom to associate with others, freedom to worship with others without coercion, freedom to participate in electoral campaigns, freedom to engage with lobby organizations, freedom to join block clubs, hobby clubs, community organizations, professional associations and, to our topic, labor unions. In libertarian terms—an awful philosophy that is infecting our beautiful society—freedom means freedom from; it means doing one’s thing, freedom from an encumbered lifestyle, freedom from obligations in order to be left alone, freedom from social responsibility except as an individual option but not letting society hinder one’s acquisition or accumulation of money or pleasure. The libertarian picture results in ragged individuals on one end and big companies and/or big government on the other end. The Catholic picture has a multiplicity of people’s groups in between those extremes.
An open shop at a union company or right to work measures undermine solidarity, threaten social cohesion and ultimately and surely are unhealthy— physically and spiritually—for the person. (Doctrine does not change merely because many U.S. Catholics, including those who identify as libertarians, do not always adhere to one or another matter of Catholic doctrine.)
The Catholic doctrine on labor relations, derived from our dogma of the Trinity and from Scripture’s revelation about God’s plan for work, has 12 or 20 corollaries, but here are its main points:
1.) Workers decide for or against a union with no paternal or maternal interference from managers. Workers likewise can later decertify a union that displeases them. No specific company is obliged under Catholicism to have a union nor does our doctrine endorse or oppose any particular fit between a particular company and a particular union. The workers decide.
2.) People flourish best–again physically and spiritually—in a vibrant civil society, not under oppressive government (totalitarianism) and not in atomistic arrangements (libertarianism). A vibrant civil society must have some labor unions with honest collective bargaining.
Picarello referenced three Chicagoans in his written testimony to the Supreme Court: Cardinal Blasé Cupich, our current archbishop, Bishop Bernard Sheil (1888-1969), a former auxiliary, and Msgr. George Higgins (1916-2002), a long-serving advisor to Church officials and union leaders. This column gives Higgins the last word, by way of a quotation from Msgr. John A. Ryan (1869-1945) of St. Paul. Higgins thought this early 1930s quote well summarized the matter.
“Effective labor unions are still by far the most powerful force in society for the protection of laborer’s rights and the improvement of [their] condition. No amount of employer benevolence, no diffusion of a sympathetic attitude on the part of the public, no piece of beneficial legislation, can adequately supply for the lack of organization among workers themselves.”
Droel’s publications on labor doctrine include Catholic Administrators and Labor Unions plus Pope John Paul II’s Gospel of Work, available from National Center for the Laity (PO Box 291102, Chicago, IL 60629; $8.50 prepaid for both).