As a matter of Virginia law, cities and counties in the Old Dominion have the option to recognize unions of their employees and engage in collective bargaining with them. As a matter of Catholic Social Teaching, however, the right of workers to join unions is a natural right. That’s why the Catholic Labor Network is supporting Virginia Beach workers who are asking the city to bargain with their chosen representatives – as it did recently with workers in Fairfax and Loudoun Counties in Northern Virginia.
The right of workers to organize and bargain collectively has been fundamental to Catholic Social Teaching since Pope Leo XIII issued his Encyclical Rerum Novarum in 1891. And that teaching hasn’t changed. As Pope Benedict XVI wrote in his 2009 social Encyclical, Caritas in Veritate: “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 therefore be honoured today even more than in the past.”
In addition to the argument from Catholic Social Teaching on union rights, in Virginia Beach there is a powerful case to be made on the grounds of racial equity. A Commonwealth Institute report demonstrates that the city’s workers earn substantially less than their private-sector counterparts, and the Virginia Beach public workforce is disproportionately African-American.
The Tidewater Sowers of Justice, an area Catholic and Christian coalition, has been active in supporting the workers – especially through its Dismantling Racism Working Community. Teresa Stanley, a member of Tidewater Sowers and a parishioner at Church of the Holy Apostles in Virginia Beach, told me:
The sin of systemic racism has resulted in a disproportionate number of the lowest paid workers in essential public sector employment being people of color and women. It is a moral imperative that as people of faith, we stand in solidarity with those that are working to dismantle oppressive economic practices for the common good of all. We believe that the economy must serve people (all people), not the other way around… Catholic social teaching principles challenge us with the moral imperative to stand in solidarity with workers that are speaking out to ensure through collective bargaining that critical human rights issues of having a real voice for safety, dignity, living wages and equity in the workforce are addressed.
The Catholic Labor Network has directed letters in support of collective bargaining to the Virginia Beach Mayor and City Council and looks forward to working with the Tidewater Sowers of Justice and city workers’ unions to promote union rights for Virginia Beach workers.