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Trade Unions and the Catholic Church

trade Unions and the Catholic Church      Gerry O'Shea

In the early 20th century, the Catholic church was strongly in favor of the development of trade unions, a major controversial public issue at that time. Pope Leo's encyclical Rerum Novarum, which was promulgated in 1891, vigorously promoted the right of workers to organize and negotiate their wages and terms of employment.

Employers used every trick in the book - fair and foul - to prevent  workers  from having an organized voice. Employees often looked to Rome for support, and every pope since Leo has affirmed  that workers  have a clear moral right to union representation.

 Mike Quill, the outstanding Kerry man who founded the Transport Workers' Union with help from the Communist Party in the 1930's, laced his speeches with references to  papal statements of support for workers' rights.

Pope Francis has confronted the conservative argument that the best economic arrangement for workers is a laissez faire approach where big company profits will flow downwards and increase the salaries of ordinary workers. Francis knows better: Trickle-down economics "expresses a crude and naive trust in those wielding economic power."

For the last fifty years the American Catholic Church has become increasingly conservative, rarely heard about the travails of workers or the plight of trade unions, rallying its members instead against abortion, gay rights and, disgracefully, even opposing Obamacare, which mostly helped the poor and working families, because it mandated the availability of contraceptives in all health insurance policies.

Bishops and cardinals are rarely heard about the serious economic inequality that now permeates American society where the top 1% has accumulated more wealth than the bottom 80%, and current Republican economic policies are making the situation even  more unfair. Where are the prophetic voices on pulpits, crying out against the moral depravity of public policies that rob the poor and ordinary workers to give the millionaires even fatter bank accounts?

The situation for workers was  better In the 1970's because unions were strong enough to insist on decent wages and conditions for their members. Since then union membership has declined to a mere 6.8%  of workers in private industry and to 34% among public employees.

The union movement is facing a major crisis in a case that is currently before the  Supreme Court.  In what is known as the Janus case, the court must decide whether or not to nationalize Right-to-Work laws. If the court weighs in on the side of Janus then non-union employees would be exempted from contributing to the costs of negotiating and defending the labor contract worked out by the union.

 At present employees in 22 states who choose not to join a union are mandated to  pay what is called an agency fee, contributing in that way to the cost of contractual negotiations.

If the court rules against the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees (AFSCME), then workers, like Mr. Janus, would become freeloaders, benefiting from union negotiations but not paying a penny for the service.

 Such a ruling seems likely because Republicans - against all precedent - refused to confirm Merrick Garland, President Obama's nominee to replace Anthony Scalia on the Supreme Court,  instead packing the court  with Neil Gorsuch, a nominee with strong right-wing conservative credentials.

A decision against AFSCME would cripple union organizing nationwide, and just imagine the disgruntlement  of union members paying higher union dues to benefit freeloading co-workers. Keep in mind that nobody wants to force any worker into joining a union or to compel any employee to contribute to any political party; the sole issue is that workers who benefit from contractual negotiations should pay an agency fee for this service.

The Catholic bishops, true to their honorable pro-union heritage, have filed a strong  brief with the Supreme Court supporting the AFSCME position, arguing cogently that Janus' case is "a misguided effort to protect one individual from government coercion" without giving due weight to the powerful argument that the common good of all workers requires the rejection of any law that, in effect, protects freeloaders.

Bishop David Zubick of Pittsburg wrote a strong, heartfelt column in his diocesan newspaper seconding the amicus brief of the Bishops' Conference." I grew up in a union household. My father was able to support his family thanks to leadership of his union, Local 590.  .... The role of unions in supporting strong families is one of the reasons that the church has supported the labor movement from its earliest days."

The common good, what benefits the community as a whole as distinct from  the private gain of individuals, is paramount in all the social teaching of the Catholic Church. One hopes that this core  moral perspective will prevail in the Janus case before the Supreme Court.

Gerry O'Shea blogs at


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