On February 26 oral arguments began in Janus v AFSCME, the most important Supreme Court case in decades for American labor unions. A majority of employees in the Illinois Department of Healthcare and Family Services have voted for union representation by the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees (AFSCME), and the AFSCME contract with the state requires all employees covered by the contract pay union dues or “agency fees” to cover the costs of bargaining and grievance handling. Mark Janus, a Department employee, wants to opt out of paying these agency fees and is asking the Supreme Court to rule that the First Amendment gives him the right to refuse. If Janus wins, he will bring “right-to-work” to every state and local government agency in the United States. That will almost certainly be catastrophic for public employee unions – after all, why pay dues if you can get all the benefits of the union’s contract without it?
The case has inspired an outpouring of Catholic support for labor. In January, the US Conference of Catholic Bishops weighed in with an amicus brief in support of AFSCME. The remarkable brief cited the long history of Catholic Social Teaching defending the right to organize and pointed out that Janus, like Roe, was asking the Court to declare Catholic Social Teaching unconstitutional. (The Catholic Labor Network joined an interdenominational alliance that filed an amicus brief of its own, also supporting the union.)
In the weeks since, numerous bishops, priests, and Catholic lay leaders have spoken out to defend the union. Don’t miss, for instance, Michael Sean Winters’ excellent essay in the National Catholic Reporter, Don’t Let ‘Janus’ Case Axe Root of American Labor. Fr. Michael Seavey, speaking at a rally before the Supreme Court building, reminded listeners, reflected on reports describing the network of deep-pocketed pro-business interest groups that financed and promoted Janus’s challenge:
In our nation’s history, there has been one institution and only one institution that has consistently advocated for, defended and promoted working people. That institution is not the government, it is not any political party, nor is it any think tank or corporation. The only institution that has consistently stood by working women and men at all times and under all circumstances are labor unions….The dark forces of economic exploitation, condemned by Pope Leo in 1891 and consistently condemned by popes ever since still face us today. They are fueled by amassed wealth and power; and move against the forces of justice, true community, and true freedom. Their true identity, covered by a veneer of concern for liberty and individual rights, becomes readily apparent when the real agenda comes to the forefront.
Fr. Clete Kiley, a Catholic Labor Network board member, addressed the issue at a solidarity rally in Chicago.
Because solidarity is at stake today the Catholic Bishops of the United States stand with AFCSME, with the Labor Movement and with the millions of union members across this country. The Catholic Bishops of the United States have filed an amicus curiae brief in the Janus case in support of AFCSME. The brief draws upon more than 125 years of Church Doctrine that supports workers, upholds their right to form unions and to bargain collectively… Unions are a positive good for society in Catholic Doctrine.
My personal favorite was the intervention by Bishop David Zubik, who penned an insightful column in the Pittsburgh Catholic. He recalled how his father’s union membership had provided a family-supporting wage during his youth, as it does for many today. He concluded,
“Solidarity!” is the great rallying cry of organized labor, and one of the most important theological principles of the church. We are all in this together. Those of us who are strong need to stand with those of us who are weak, so that we can all thrive together. We in the church need to support our sisters and brothers in unions, as together — in both private sectors and public sectors — we work for a more just, pro-life and pro-family society.
Have any Catholic leaders in your community impressed you with their witness for public workers’ rights in the face of Janus v. AFSCME? Please email [email protected] with the details, or share them in the comment section below!