Adrienne Alexander and Father Clete Kiley

The Workers’ Rights Amendment and Catholic social doctrine

Wednesday, August 31, 2022

This November, Illinois citizens will vote on an important amendment to the state constitution. The Workers’ Rights Amendment will guarantee workers the fundamental right to organize in unions, to negotiate their wages, hours and working conditions and to promote their economic welfare and safety at work.

It would also prohibit the legislature from passing any law that interferes with the right of employees to organize and bargain collectively over their wages, hours and other terms and conditions of employment and workplace safety. Additionally, the amendment makes no distinction between public sector and private sector unions, on the premise that firefighters, public school teachers and library workers deserve the same rights and dignity on the job as plumbers, miners and hotel workers.

The purpose of this article is to highlight relevant principles of Catholic social teaching that faithful citizens should take into consideration as they decide how to vote.

First, the right of workers to organize in unions is one of the oldest principles of modern Catholic social teaching. It was first articulated by Pope Leo XIII in 1891.

Observing the exploitation and abuse of the working classes during the early industrial revolution, the Holy Father observed in his encyclical “Rerum Novarum” that “workingmen’s unions” were helping redress cruel and inequitable conditions in the workplace and wished “that they should become more numerous and more efficient” (49).

This teaching has been repeatedly reaffirmed by the church ever since. “Among the basic rights of the human person is to be numbered the right of freely founding unions for working people,” according to the Second Vatican Council’s “Gaudium et Spes.” “Included is the right of freely taking part in the activity of these unions without risk of reprisal” (68).

In “Laborem Exercens,” St. Pope John Paul II called labor unions “an indispensable element of social life, especially in modern industrialized societies,” and “indeed a mouthpiece for the struggle for social justice” (20). In “Caritas in Veritate,” Pope Benedict XVI concluded that “traditional networks of solidarity have more and more obstacles to overcome. 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 honored today even more than in the past” (25).

Catholic teaching on the right of workers to organize is, therefore, not in doubt.

Second, Catholic social teaching recognizes that workers who organize in labor unions serve the common good in three important ways:

They promote economic equality. Without unions negotiating for a fair share of corporate profits, the voice of workers risks being silenced as they press for family-supporting wages, health insurance and retirement security.

They promote the just and equitable treatment in the workplace. Under current law, individual workers who lack the protection of a union contract are retained only at the will of the employer. That is, a foreman, manager or supervisor can fire such workers for any reason or none at all, and the workers have no legal recourse. With a union-negotiated grievance procedure in place, workers can appeal unjust discipline or dismissal to an independent third party.

They promote workplace safety. With the protection of a union, workers are more willing to report unsafe working conditions before someone is injured on the job. Moreover, in the absence of such a grievance procedure, workers who report occupational hazards are subject to reprisal.

As Catholic voters consider the Workers’ Rights Amendment this fall, these principles should be taken into consideration. Faithful citizenship depends on being informed by our faith and acting on it. That is especially true when it comes to the rights and safety of workers, which the church has supported for over a century.


  • labor unions