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Legatus Magazine

Cover Story
Judy Roberts | author
Jul 01, 2011
Filed under Featured

John Paul vs. unions

How public sector unions’ demands stack up against Catholic social teaching . . .

For many Catholics, the debate over changing state employee collective-bargaining “rights” is resolved with an easy answer: The Church supports unions so any move to tamper with longstanding contract provisions must be unjust.

But a closer reading of Catholic social teaching offers a perspective that may surprise people on both sides of the issue.

Dignity of work

The approaching 30th anniversary of Laborem Exercens, Blessed John Paul II’s 1981 encyclical on the dignity of work, presents Catholics and others with an opportunity to take a fresh look at what the Church has to say about work and the relationship between employee and employer, whether in union or non-union settings.

Published on the 90th anniversary of Pope Leo XIII’s landmark encyclical Rerum Novarum, which inaugurated much of the Church’s discussion about unions and worker rights, Laborem Exercens takes the 1891 encyclical to a deeper level.

George Wiegel

“The key themes of Laborem Exercens,” said George Weigel, distinguished senior fellow at the Ethics and Public Policy Center in Washington, D.C., “are the innate dignity of work, which is to be understood as an exercise in human creativity rather than a punishment for original sin, and human work as our participation in God’s ongoing creation of the world.”

Although the encyclical goes on to call unions “an indispensable element of social life” and recognizes the use of strikes as legitimate under certain conditions and within limits, it also says: “Just efforts to secure the rights of workers who are united by the same profession should always take into account the limitations imposed by the general economic situation of the country” (#20).

Even though Catholic social teaching contains a long-standing bias in favor of unions, the Church has always seen its social teaching as dynamic, according to Fr. Robert Sirico, president of the Acton Institute in Grand Rapids, Mich. This means that conditions described, for example, in Rerum Novarum are not necessarily the same as those occurring today in places like Ohio and Wisconsin, where state budget crises have led to restrictions on public-sector employee collective-bargaining provisions.

This spring, state governments across the country took swift action to limit the power of organized labor in public schools. Wisconsin, Ohio, Indiana, Idaho and Michigan were the first, and Tennessee’s governor signed a law last month ending collective bargaining and giving local school boards the full authority to operate their districts in the manner they choose.

As Weigel wrote in an April 1 column in The Pilot, the kinds of workers both Leo XIII and John Paul II had in mind in their encyclicals on work were very different from“unionized American public school teachers who make decent salaries with good health and pension benefits, often work nine months of the year and are sometimes difficult to fire even if they commit crimes.”

Weigel told Legatus Magazine that most Catholics, including bishops and priests, are relatively uninformed about the social doctrine of the Church, its themes and development.

Father Sirico said he thinks this is because many priests, especially younger ones, are not interested in these issues, and some older ones have failed to update themselves on the subject.

“Those who pay any attention today,” Weigel added, “know that the Church supported the trade-union movement in the late 19th century, and therefore assume that the Church must support everything unions propose today. That simply isn’t the case: The times and circumstances have changed, as has the nature of union activity.

“When unions support abortion-on-demand, they must be opposed. When unions oppose measures that offer enhanced educational opportunity to poor children, they should be asked to examine their consciences.”

Political action

Laborem Exercens also addresses another element of union activity seen today in the relationship between the Democratic Party and unions like the National Education Association and the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees. The encyclical cautions unions against having close ties with political parties.

“Unions,” John Paul wrote in Laborem Exercens, “do not have the character of political parties struggling for power; they should not be subjected to the decision of political parties or have too close links with them” (#20).

Fr. Robert Sirico

Father Sirico said the pope’s reference here was to the bogus unions of the Communist parties. But, he added, “We see that this really has happened in the U.S., especially with the publicemployee unions. They are in lockstep with one political party and they advance that agenda. What’s most troubling to good Catholics, especially those with a history of union membership, is that these unions have turned on the most fundamental teachings of the Church with regard to marriage and life. They have become the strongest political forces in our country.”

Furthermore, in Laborem Exercens, John Paul states that man must work out of regard for others, not only his own family, but for society, his country and the human family. He also is to consider future generations.

State workers who are being asked to accept limits on collective bargaining provisions because the states that employ them are struggling financially are finding it hard to see this obligation amid the present conflict, Fr. Sirico said.

“This is a whole historical trajectory that has taken place and a momentum that has built,” he said. “The workers themselves are kind of caught in the middle of this thing. Obviously their [union] leadership has not served them well. If they had given concessions over time and adapted to the marketplace, they would not be in the drastic situation they’re in now where they have to, in effect, hold an entire state hostage to achieve their own goals.”

Weigel added, “Public sector workers, like everyone else, have a responsibility to act for the common good, and not simply on their own behalf. A union that doesn’t look out for its own is an absurdity. A union that only looks out for its own is a problem.”

News reports about states’ efforts to limit collective bargaining typically call collective bargaining a “right.” However, Fr. Sirico said he sees no “right” to collective bargaining implicit in the social teachings of the Church, especially if it’s preserved at the expense of a foundering state budget. In the eyes of the Church, he said, even a strike has to be a last resort, not an ultimatum, and the disruption it causes must be proportionate to the expectation of good.

“You can’t just assert a right and not care about all the other effects that take place,” he said. “Wisconsin is a good example. If the unions don’t concede, if there aren’t some revisions to the way in which contracts and all of the benefits are administered, if they bankrupt an entire state, this is not supportive of the common good, which is what work needs to do. There has to be a proportionate benefit and not just for one section of people at the expense of others.”

Judy Roberts is a Legatus Magazine staff writer.

Rerum Novarum and Laborem Exercens are available online at or

Another good source for this topic is the Compendium of the Social Doctrine of the Church.


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