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Catholic teaching and unions: Framing the debate Print E-mail
Guest column

Guest column by Dr. Constance NielsenIn the recent struggle between Scott Walker and the public sector unions, many people have asked where Catholic social teaching stands in this debate. The "both/and" nature of Church teaching yet again finds Catholics on both sides of the argument. While the Church offers "no technical solutions" (Caritas in veritate 10) it does provide the principles upon which to frame the debate.

In the first place, the Church has been a long time supporter of the worker's right to form associations. Leo XIII clearly affirmed this right in 1891 in Rerum novarum at a time when worker's unions were still illegal in many parts of the world. The right is based upon the social nature of the human person and the natural tendency to work in community for the pursuit of justice.

Thus the government, whose own existence is a result of the same human reality, cannot forbid worker associations without rejecting the very basis on which its own existence depends (RN 51). This teaching has been consistently upheld. In 1991, V. John Paul II, updating Leo's teaching to more modern language, refers to the right to form worker associations as "inalienable and proper to the human person" (Centesimus annus 7).

Related articles:

Archbishop Listecki's statement (PDF)

Bishop Morlino's column

Caritas in veritate

Rerum novarum

Centesimus annus

Laborem exercens

Solicitudo rei socialis

The right, however, is not without limitation. In Rerum novarum, Leo points out that, "There are occasions, doubtless, when it is fitting that the law should intervene to prevent certain associations, as when men join together for purposes which are evidently bad, unlawful, or dangerous to the State" (RN 52). Though Leo seems here only to be thinking of groups that, by their very nature, are injurious, it does demonstrate that the right itself is not absolute. As with all matters that pertain to society, if there is a threat to the common good, public authority should intervene.

In Leo's time it was necessary to urge government that "precaution should be taken not to violate the rights of individuals and not to impose unreasonable regulations under pretense of public benefit" (RN 52). This calls to mind the early labor movement in this country, when any association was labeled "socialist" and outlawed. State intervention is meant to remain at the lowest level possible.

But John Paul II, reflecting on his own times, wrote for caution on the part of the Unions as well, further developing the implications of the limitations placed upon the right. He writes that the just efforts to secure the rights of workers should "always take into account the limitations imposed by the general economic situation of the country." Union demands, he states, cannot be turned into a kind of "group or class egoism" (Laborem exercens 20).

Essentially, the distinction is one of self-interest vs. the common good. A Union represents a collective self-interest. Its purpose is to balance power in negotiations between the conflicting self-interests of the worker and the employer. The isolated worker is at the mercy of the owner, and depends upon the association of fellow workers to obtain justice if threatened.

But as with any self-interest, if the Union uses its collective power to press its own interests to the detriment of the common good, the State might be called to intervene. Unions play their part in the struggle for justice, but their freedom is not without limit, because as with any self-interest they are bound to serve the common good, which it is the duty of the State to protect.

Framing the issue in terms of the common good raises questions about the specific nature of public sector unions, a matter not addressed by the current teaching with its focus on the private sector. When the ultimate target of collective bargaining is the taxpayer, rather than the more affluent owner, the struggle for the common good becomes more complex. In this case, the impact of Union demands upon the "general economic situation" would be more far reaching and the role of State involvement more immediate.

In this context it is good to recall John Paul's warning against too strong of a connection between the work of Unions and the political arena. Though Unions enter into politics, understood as "the pursuit of the common good," they are not meant to engage in the struggle for the power of political parties, nor have too close of a tie with any political party. In such a case, "they easily lose contact with their specific role, which is to secure the just rights of workers within the framework of the common good of the whole of society; instead they become an instrument used for other purposes" (LE 20, emphasis in the original).

Again, the Pope primarily has the private sector in mind. Unions are actually meant to resolve economic issues in order to avoid undue intervention of the State, not to increase it (see RN 45 and CA 48). But his comments are even more pertinent for public sector unions where fiscal power, in the form of campaign contributions, could be wielded by the Unions in order to effectively choose their own bargaining partner. This has the potential for creating a relationship of mutual self-interest, leaving those outside of the arrangement marginalized and voiceless, but still paying for it. Such a condition actually poses a greater threat of excessive State involvement, which it is the very purpose of Unions to help avoid.

But however the secular media might portray the unrest in Wisconsin, as "taxpayers vs. public workers" or "liberals vs. conservatives," an authentically Catholic view of society would not frame it this way. What is most salient for the Catholic perspective is John Paul's corrective that the conflict ought not, in fact, be understood as a power-struggle. The struggle, he writes, should always be aimed towards achieving justice; it should never be seen as a struggle against other people (LE 20). In other words, both sides of any labor disagreement ought to be working for justice and the common good, rather than to achieve their own personal victory.

The struggle should instead be seen as two conflicting propositions for what would best serve the common good -- understood as "the good of all and of each individual" (Sollicitudo rei socialis 38) -- according to justice and the promotion of authentic freedom. True solidarity, aimed at the common good, always involves sacrifice. In the words of John Paul, solidarity means that "one's neighbor must therefore be loved, even if an enemy, with the same love with which the Lord loves him or her; and for that person's sake one must be ready for sacrifice, even the ultimate one: to lay down one's life for the brethren" (SRS 40).

As Archbishop Jerome Listecki recently reminded us, everyone must "move beyond divisive words and actions and work together, so that Wisconsin can recover in a humane way from the current fiscal crisis."


Dr. Constance Nielsen received her Ph.D. in Religious Studies from Marquette University, Milwaukee, with an emphasis on Catholic Social Teaching. She currently teaches and works as development director at St. Ambrose Academy in Madison, Wis., and serves on the local diocesan Catholic Campaign for Human Development (CCHD) committee.

Last Updated on Friday, Feb. 25, 2011 -- 11:17 AM