John Gehring

U.S. Catholic bishops stand up for unions

Wednesday, February 21, 2018

The U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops has sent a strongly worded brief to the Supreme Court that urges justices to reject so-called right-to-work measures that church leaders argue decimate unions, undermine workers’ rights and clash with centuries of Catholic social teaching.

In one of the most closely watched cases on the court’s docket this year, Janus v. the American Federation of State County and Municipal Employees, an Illinois state employee sued the union arguing that he should not have to pay union dues. A decision in favor of the employee would have dire implications for a labor movement that has seriously weakened in recent decades, even as corporate power and income inequality grows. 

More than two dozen states now have right-to-work laws, which means that unions and employers in those states are prohibited from requiring workers to pay union dues that cover collective bargaining and other services that benefit workers. 

“The Catholic bishops of the United States have long and consistently supported the right of workers to organize for purposes of collective bargaining,” Anthony Picarello Jr., general counsel for the USCCB writes in a friend-of-the court brief. “Because this right is substantially weakened by so-called ‘right-to-work’ laws, many bishops — in their dioceses, through their state conferences, and through their national conference — have opposed or cast doubt on such laws, and no U.S. bishop has expressed support for them.” 

The bishops cite research that shows workers’ bargaining power is significantly weakened in states where right-to-work is the law, and argue that those who enjoy the benefits of union representation in those states without paying for them fail to contribute to the union’s ability to serve the common good.

Beginning with Pope Leo XIII’s 1892 encyclical “Rerum Novarum,” the brief details the long history of Catholic social teaching affirming a vital role for unions and workers’ right to organize. The bishops quote Pope John Paul II, who wrote in his 1981 encyclical, “Laborem Exercens,” that unions are “an indispensable element of social life.” 

The bishops cite Pope Francis’ address to the Confederation of Trade Unions in Italy, in which the pope said that “there is no good society without a good union.” The brief also references Cardinal Cupich’s 2015 address at Plumber’s Union Hall, where he said that “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.”

If the Supreme Court opens the floodgates for right-to-work laws across the country, the bishops warn, church leaders would be left in the same position as they were after the court ruled for a constitutional right to abortion and a right to same-sex marriage. 

“This would represent another unfortunate decision of this court that marginalizes the voice of the bishops with respect to an important public policy debate by declaring their position to lie beyond the constitutional pale,” according to the brief. 

Gerald Beyer, an associate professor of Christian ethics at Villanova University and author of “Recovering Solidarity: Lessons from Poland’s Unfinished Revolution,” hopes the case will be what he calls “a moment of catechesis” for Catholics in the United States. “Research has shown that less than half of all Catholics in this country have a favorable view of unions,” Beyer said. “Some vocal libertarian Catholics have also called into question the church’s unwavering support of unions. This brief tangibly demonstrates that the church continues to stand in solidarity with workers and understands that their rights will continue to be violated without strong unions.”

In recent years, there have been signs that the church and the labor movement are strengthening longstanding ties. A few months before Pope Francis’ 2015 visit to the United States, more than a dozen Catholic bishops and cardinals, including Cardinal Cupich, took part in public dialogues at AFL-CIO headquarters in Washington at a conference titled “Erroneous Autonomy: A Conversation on Solidarity and Faith.” 

In a keynote speech, Cardinal Donald Wuerl of Washington cited a “renewal of appreciation” for the “Catholic idea of solidarity.” He told labor leaders in the audience that the church cannot be “bystanders” in the fight for workers’ rights. 

Father Clete Kiley, a priest of the Archdiocese of Chicago and director for immigration policy at UNITE HERE, which represents more than 270,000 workers in the hotel, gaming, food service, laundry and airport industries, has been working to revive the tradition of labor priests. He launched a labor priest initiative in 2012, a loose network of more than 100 priests across the country who are trained to support workers through the framework of Catholic social teaching.

Union leaders expressed appreciation to the bishops for weighing in before the Supreme Court case. 

“There is a rich tradition, in the United States and around the world, of shared values between the labor movement and faith communities, including the Catholic Church,” said Lee Saunders, president of the American Federation of State County and Municipal Employees, the union at the center of the case. “We are grateful for the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops’ support in the Janus case, as we defend the freedom of working people to build power in numbers, to stand together in strong unions, to build more vibrant communities and a better life for themselves.”

Mary Kay Henry, president of the Service Employees Industrial Union, said the Catholic Church has always recognized that strong unions serve the common good. “We are grateful to the bishops’ support as we fight back against this politically driven campaign to divide us from our co-workers and limit the power in numbers we have in our union. Knowing that the Catholic bishops and other allies of working people are with us, we are confident that we will prevail.”



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