The Working Catholic: Strikes
by Bill Droel
Strikes are in the news: auto workers, janitors, teachers, hotel workers and more. Catholicism has a well-developed doctrine on labor relations that includes moral considerations regarding strikes. Most Catholics, I suspect, know nothing about this doctrine. Some who know about it don’t accept it.
Catholicism says that a wholesome, holy society must have bargaining associations for workers. This teaching is part of the principles of subsidiarity and solidarity. It also fits with Catholicism’s experience of responsible freedom—something lacking in societies without independent worker associations and other countervailing forces. Totalitarianisms, on one hand, squash unions. Libertarian capitalism with its equation of freedom with extreme individualism likewise rejects unions and other mediating structures. A healthy society by contrast encourages workers’ groups and other associations.
Catholicism does not say that every workplace must have a union. It does not say that this or that union is a good fit for this or that workplace. It does, however, assert that the workers make the choice for or against a union without the maternal or paternal meddling of management. In support of this doctrine Catholicism says that bona fide workers’ groups are entitled to job actions. Catholicism does not vouch for the wisdom of any one job action. That’s a prudential matter for the workers.
A strike is morally OK with some conditions. It must be a just strike. That is, the workers have previously exercised good faith in expressing their position. The issues are serious enough. No violence can occur, though strikers can be loud and can temporarily assert extreme demands. During a strike the union must have a negotiating posture. So too, says Catholicism, must management. This is why a lock out is immoral.
Finally, the strikers are not allowed to put customers, patients, students, neighbors and the like in danger. This is why a wholesale strike by police officers is immoral. For the same reason a nurses’ strike is morally dicey. It could be acceptable, only if provisions for patient care are taken and if it is of short duration.
In keeping with these criteria Catholicism says that no Catholic is allowed to cross a legitimate picket line. No Catholic, meaning suppliers, customers and managers. (If this stricture were observed, all strikes would be settled quickly. After all, about 25% of all executives are Catholic.)
Cardinal John O’Connor (1920-2000) of New York was schooled in labor doctrine from his childhood. One time a major Catholic entity scheduled its high-priced ticket fundraiser at an elite country club. Days before the event the club’s staff went on strike. O’Connor announced that his religion prohibited him from attending the event and mentioned that the prohibition should apply to any Catholic. The event was cancelled, even though the entity really needed this fundraiser.
From the doctrine pertaining to strikes it logically follows that the use of permanent replacement workers is a contradiction in terms. O’Connor testified to our U.S. Congress on this point.
Finally, the record must state that Catholic institutions sometimes flaunt our faith and engage in union busting. That their trustees and managers are able to get away with their behavior, provides proof as to why workers need their own associations, free from maternalism or paternalism. A list of Catholic institutions that harmoniously deal with a union is found on this Catholic Labor Network website.
Droel is an author of Catholic Institutions and Labor Unions (National Center for the Laity, PO Box 291102, Chicago, IL 60629; $1)