Union rights targeted in NH, MO, KY, IA: How will Catholics Respond?

The next few months promise to be challenging ones for unions, and workers who value their union rights. In New Hampshire, Missouri, and Kentucky, newly elected politicians have promised to go after organized labor by passing so-called “right to work” legislation. Indeed, many observers expect national right-to-work proposals to come up for debate in the US Congress (libertarian-minded Kentucky Senator Rand Paul filed such a bill in the last session). In Iowa and Missouri measures targeting the bargaining rights of public employees are being floated. How will Catholics respond to these initiatives? How should they, given the premises of Catholic social teaching?

Public employees and the Right to Organize

This one is pretty straightforward: Catholic social teaching, from the time of Rerum Novarum to the present, has consistently defended the right of workers to organize in unions. As Gaudium et Spes observes, “Among the basic rights of the human person is to be numbered the right of freely founding unions for working people.” There’s no exclusion for public employees. (Lest we forget, Pope John Paul II’s favorite labor union was a bargaining unit of public employees that illegally struck a Gdansk shipyard!)

If any of the proposals strip public employees of their union rights, Catholics could do worse than following the lead of the Wisconsin Catholic Conference. In 2011, Governor Scott Walker and his supporters in the legislature cited budget shortfalls to justify denying state and local public workers their right to organize and bargain collectively. Writing for the WCC, Milwaukee Archbishop Jerome Listecki observed that all parties, including workers, might be called upon to sacrifice for the common good – but stated emphatically that “hard times do not nullify the moral obligation each of us has to respect the legitimate rights of workers.” The USCCB Committee on Domestic Justice and Human Development seconded the Archbishop’s message soon thereafter. Sadly, few legislators listened, and these workers lost this “basic right.”

“Right to Work”

Ordinarily workers secure a union by voting – if a majority of workers in a group vote for a union to represent them, the union represents them all. They get rid of a union the same way – if a majority votes to get rid of it (or “decertify”) the union no longer represents anyone. It’s a simple and elegant expression of majority rule on the job.

A growing number of states have created a loophole, though, called “right to work.” Right to work allows individual workers to opt out of paying dues, even where a majority voted for union representation. The results are what you might expect. Since everyone gets union wages and benefits, whether they pay dues or not, a lot of workers decide to become “free riders.” They end up sitting in the wagon while their co-workers push. Those pushing the cart resent the free riders, and if enough workers climb into the wagon it grinds to a halt.

Catholic social teaching does not have a teaching on “right to work” per se. The Church is a global institution, spanning nations with a wide variety of industrial relations systems. The Church does not prescribe the forms of collective bargaining laws; It does, however, give us some criteria to evaluate them. Chicago Cardinal Blase Cupich has cogently observed:

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?”

Right to work laws do not forbid workers from organizing and bargaining collectively, but they burden the exercise of those rights significantly. It seems difficult to reconcile these new “right-to-work” proposals with either Pope Leo’s wish in Rerum Novarum that unions “become more numerous and more efficient” – or with Pope Benedict’s instruction in Caritas in Veritate that with the onset of globalization, Leo’s call for “the promotion of workers’ associations that can defend their rights must be honoured today even more than in the past.”

8 replies
  1. Allan B Darr
    Allan B Darr says:

    The Church should take an official position on Right To Work (for less), as it should be called as it so harmful to wages, hours and working conditions.

    • James Blum
      James Blum says:

      No doubt. By multiple sources, there are approximately 324 million people in the United States. Also by multiple sources, approximately 25% of those people are Catholic and an additional 10% with have fallen away or do not go that need to return home to the Church. That is approximately 81,000,000 -114,000,000 people sitting back and waiting for hope and leadership. Compare that to the 1970’s when we as a Church should have been protesting new laws geared at abortion. We can not wait and sit idle at laws that will hurt our Faith in the workplace. Hindsight is always 20/20 but let us learn from our failures in the 1970’s and do the right thing now with “Right to Work for Less” Legislation.

  2. James Blum
    James Blum says:

    A good talking point that works for us in educating people on “Right to Work for Less” is the comparison of “Right to Work for Less Laws” to going out to eat at a restaurant. In “Right to Work for Less” legislation, a Union is obligated to representing the worker that falls under the respective bargaining agreement irregardless if the worker is paying dues or not. This essentially is geared at bankrupting the Union as there will not be enough funds to properly represent all workers to the extent necessary. Compare this by painting the picture to another individual by stating to the individual that they own a restaurant. The restaurant owner has to allow everyone into the restaurant. The restaurant owner allows for everyone to place an order. The restaurant owner has to allow everyone to eat. When it is time to pay the bill, the restaurant owner is not allowed to collect the money that is owed to them for the meal unless the individual who ate the meal chooses to pay. Ask the individual then, what will happen to the restaurant in the long term and nearly everyone will respond that the restaurant will go out of business. Exactly. It is no mystery what the intent of “Right to Work for Less” legislation is intended to do. We would tend to assume also, that the Catholic members of Legislatures in all 50 states are not fully understanding the devastating effects long term of the legislation as extreme wealthy people influence the elections to promote their individualist goals in life instead of representing the common good. We will do our part in defending our Faith, defending our Family and defending defending our Union simply put by leading by example everyday day. When we fail, we will accept constructive criticism, regroup and lead by example again. No excuses. No waiting until tomorrow. Our faith depends on us to be leaders at home, at Church and in the community. Mary Queen of Peace, pray for us! Mary Queen of Victory, pray for us!

  3. Jim Cusack
    Jim Cusack says:

    We as workers have the right to form a more perfect union one that will represent us in our our hope for a common good

  4. Greg Guthrie
    Greg Guthrie says:

    Here are a couple of resources on the Catholic Church and ‘Right to Work’ . Fr. Lee’s thesis is an exhaustive analysis of the ethical aspects of RTW laws, done at Catholic University around 50 years ago.
    It is quite relevant, nevertheless.

    This Ph. D. thesis was written by a Catholic Priest, Fr. James Lee, at the Catholic University of America.
    His thesis advisor was Monsignor George G. Higgins, who was known as America,s Labor Priest.

    Thesis- Labor Unions- Champions of Social Justice – by Greg Guthrie. Georgetown 2002

  5. Donald Rozick
    Donald Rozick says:

    I am 70 years old and a life long Catholic, although there was a time in the 1960’s when I fell away from the practice of the faith, but did return. In my lifetime I can only recall two sermons/homilies where a priest preached from the pulpit on the social justice teachings of the Catholic Church. In one case, the priest was very close to retirement. He told me many of his parishioners got upset with such preaching and he could now take a slightly more forceful approach to this topic because of his pending retirement. I was amazed when Archbishop Nolan, now Cardinal Nolan, publicly stated that Paul Ryan’s proposed budget was in line with Catholic social teachings. To their credit, the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops expressed opposition to Nolan’s statement, but of course it was not very well publicized. After the November election when it was known there would be a Republican president and a Republican majority in Congress, one of the Republican leaders made the statement that the Catholic church works better with us than with Democrats. That says more to me about the Church’s attitude toward and support of what is supposed to be their teachings on social justice. Catholic bishops, I don’t hear you.

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