“Right to Work” Is Wrong for Workers and Society

Two are better than one: They get a good wage for their toil. If the one falls, the other will help the fallen one. But woe to the solitary person! If that one should fall, there is no other to help. Where one alone may be overcome, two together can resist. A three-ply cord is not easily broken.

Ecclesiastes 4:9-10,12

Woe to the solitary person in today’s economy! An individual worker is powerless to negotiate wages, benefits and working conditions with the likes of McDonald’s, Amazon or Wal-Mart. That’s why Pope Leo XIII made the right of workers to organize in unions a fundamental premise of Catholic Social Teaching in his 1891 encyclical letter Rerum Novarum [49]. And it applies today no less than it did in in the early years of the industrial revolution. Pope Benedict XIV, in his social encyclical Caritas in Veritate, in fact concluded that “The repeated calls issued within the Church’s social doctrine, beginning with Rerum Novarum, for the promotion of workers’ associations that can defend their rights must be honoured today even more than in the past [25].”

Misnamed “right to work” policies confer no right to employment; rather, they serve primarily to undermine the effective functioning of labor unions. Labor unions are formed by majority vote and serve as expressions of the solidarity of a given workforce: the union bargains a contract for the common good of all the workers, and all the workers in turn contribute dues to support its operation. “Right to work” laws give individual workers the “right” to enjoy the benefits of the union contract while opting out of paying dues to support it. “Right to work” laws create a wound to solidarity and a perverse incentive setting the economic interests of the solitary person against the common good of the group as a whole.

Each year legislators in one or more states propose new “right to work” laws. As Cardinal Blase Cupich of the Archdiocese of Chicago observed in 2015,

In view of present day attempts to enact so-called right-to-work laws the Church is duty bound to challenge such efforts by raising questions based on longstanding principles. We have to ask, “Do these measures undermine the capacity of unions to organize, to represent workers and to negotiate contracts? Do such laws protect the weak and vulnerable? Do they promote the dignity of work and the rights of workers? Do they promote a more just society and a more fair economy? Do they advance the common good?” Lawmakers and others may see it differently, but history has shown that a society with a healthy, effective and responsible labor movement is a better place than one where other powerful economic interests have their way and the voices and rights of workers are diminished.

“Right to work” does not protect the weak and vulnerable or promote a more fair economy; it does undermine the capacity of unions to organize, represent workers and negotiate contracts. Answering Pope Benedict’s call to promote worker associations that can defend worker rights more than in the past calls for laws that foster worker solidarity make it easier for workers to form unions and bargain collectively, not more difficult. The Catholic Labor Network opposes the implementation of “right to work” laws and recommends the repeal of such laws where they currently exist.

4 replies
  1. Aimee Shelide Mayer
    Aimee Shelide Mayer says:

    Such an important reminder as Tennessee’s General Assembly seeks to amend our state constitution to add “Right to Work” to the Constitution. We need to be reminded of this prophetic message from 1891, as it rings true still today!

  2. Christopher M Hudetz
    Christopher M Hudetz says:

    I was under the impression that the ‘Right to Work’ law meant that employment was ‘at will’.
    I.E. the employee has the right to quit at any time (and for any reason), and the employer
    can fire an employee (also without any warning, and doesn’t have to give a reason).
    I think these laws were enacted after the defeat of the CSA (Confederate States of America)
    in 1866?!

    • Clayton Sinyai
      Clayton Sinyai says:

      No, the “Right to Work” laws examined here are about the “right” to work in a union workplace without joining the union. “At-will employment” is another serious labor justice issue in the United States — if you don’t have a contract your employer can fire you for any reason at any time, without any due process. Many other democratic countries have laws that allow workers to appeal an unjust dismissal, but in the U.S. you are generally out of luck unless your job is covered by a union contract with a grievance procedure.

  3. CJ Schultz
    CJ Schultz says:

    We in Montana have defeated RTW for this session. We had about 1000 union brothers and sisters at the capital to show our legislators Montana is opposed to RTW


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