Why are Catholic bishops backing unions at the Supreme Court?

Newark Cardinal Joseph Tobin, left, speaks during a labor and faith forum at Seton Hall University on March 6, 2018, in South Orange, N.J. Tobin was joined by AFL-CIO President Richard Trumka, far right, and explained the church’s support for unions. RNS photo by Jack Jenkins

The ’Splainer (as in “You’ve got some ’splaining to do”) is an occasional feature in which the RNS staff gives you everything you need to know about current events to hold your own at the water cooler.
(RNS) — The U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops in January sided with unions in a case before the Supreme Court, submitting an amicus brief in support of public-sector unions and their right to collect money from nonmembers for collective bargaining.The bishops’ involvement with Janus v. American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees surprised some. But church leaders have since doubled down, taking part in a forum last week on labor and faith at Seton Hall University. Newark Cardinal Joseph Tobin, on stage with AFL-CIO President Richard Trumka, explained the bishops’ interest in the case and reiterated the church’s enthusiastic support for unions.

“You should not be able to join a union shop and then turn it upside, any more than you should be able to join a church and then insist we stop meeting on Sunday mornings and instead gather for worship on Mondays during Monday night football,” he said. “And you should not be able to benefit from all the work that unions do to represent workers without paying your fair share.”

So where does this affinity between Catholic bishops and labor movements come from? Let us ’Splain …

How far back does Catholic support for labor unions go?

One of the earliest expressions of solidarity between the Catholic Church and modern labor movements came in 1887, when Cardinal James Gibbons of Baltimore defended a secretive pro-labor society known as the Knights of Labor in a letter to the Vatican. Church leaders had condemned various secret societies at the time, but Gibbons argued that the Knights — who claimed a number of Catholic members — were not an enemy of Catholicism and that church leaders should stand with working people. It worked: Gibbons persuaded his superiors not to condemn the American group.

Did that support for unions go all the way to the top?

Cardinal James Gibbons worked for union rights during his tenure as archbishop of Baltimore. Photo courtesy of Creative Commons

The Knights declined as an organization soon after, but Gibbons’ arguments had an impact on Pope Leo XIII, who incorporated many of them in his 1891 encyclical “Rerum Novarum.” Leo railed against unrestricted capitalism and lifted up unions as an important form of “private society,” cementing the burgeoning spiritual alliance between labor groups and the church.

“The most important of all (private societies) are workingmen’s unions, for these virtually include all the rest,” he wrote.

The encyclical, which Tobin described as “the Magna Carta of Catholic social doctrine,” became a rallying cry throughout the 20th century for various unionizing campaigns and labor rallies.

OK, so there’s a pro-labor encyclical. What else has the church done to support unions?

The church remained involved in the lives of workers and sometimes even took on their plight: In the 1940s, some clerics in France became “worker-priests,” joining everyday workers on factory assembly lines. (Side note: This turned out to be a dicey move, as the pope later cracked down when the priests became involved in politics.)

Meanwhile, church leaders continued to voice support for unions. In his 1981 encyclical “Laborem Exercens,” St. John Paul II lauded organized labor organizations as “an indispensable element of social life” (although he cautioned they should not “play politics” or associate themselves too closely with political parties). Pope Benedict XVI also acknowledged the lengthy history of Catholic-labor relations in his own 2009 encyclical, “Caritas in Veritate.”

“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 honoured today even more than in the past, as a prompt and far-sighted response to the urgent need for new forms of cooperation at the international level, as well as the local level,” he wrote.

Finally, Pope Francis carried on this tradition, telling a gathering of union delegates in 2017, “There is no good society without a good union.”

Why do the bishops care so much about the Janus case?

The precise issue in the case hasn’t been addressed by a full assembly of the bishops. But their brief argues that ruling against the unions would “constitutionalize” a “‘right-to-work’ position” — the phrase used to describe state-level laws that prohibit the practice of requiring all who benefit from a union contract to pay dues that fund their union representation. The brief points out that not only has no U.S. bishop ever publicly supported right-to-work laws, but that the group has also been “generally been very inimical” to the idea, and that some individual bishops or state conferences have even spoken out against them.

To wit, they note bishops opposed the Taft-Hartley Act of 1947 — the law that created right-to-work laws — and have supported its repeal.

To show their seriousness of purpose, the bishops’ brief goes on to argue that ruling against the unions would “represent another unfortunate decision of this Court that marginalizes the voice of the bishops.” They point to Roe v. Wade, the landmark decision that legalized abortion, and Obergefell v. Hodges, the ruling that legalized same-sex marriage, as other examples of “marginalizing” Catholic voices (the bishops opposed the high court decision in both cases).

What about Catholics who don’t like the bishops’ stance on labor?

They can be as vocal as the bishops on the issue, and on the Janus case in particular. Bishop Thomas John Paprocki of the Diocese of Springfield, Ill., issued a statementcritical of the bishop’s amicus brief in the case, writing, “While church teaching clearly supports freedom of association and the right to form and join a union, it does not mandate coercing people to join a union or pay dues against their will.”

While Paprocki went on to suggest his own neutrality on the subject, writer Ed Whelan, who is also Catholic, rejected the brief’s argument in a piece in the National Review. He did not deny the history of solidarity between Catholics and labor unions but questioned “how these principles apply to whether public-sector unions today should be able to extract agency fees from objecting nonmembers.”

Still, Whelan’s skepticism does not appear to be the prevailing viewpoint among Catholic leaders in the United States.

When Tobin was asked about this kind of pushback in a March 6 news conference, he looked flummoxed. After sharing a bewildered glance with Trumka, the AFL-CIO president, the cleric said: “I would want to talk to them, personally: I would want to say, ‘Tell me how you got there. How (do) you think the values of solidarity, of the nature of economic goods, and innate human dignity — do you think those have changed?’”

Francis hailed for catapulting concerns of working people and labor

Crux, March 8, 2018, Christopher White

Francis hailed for catapulting concerns of working people and labor

(Credit: photo courtesy to Crux.)

SOUTH ORANGE, New Jersey – Pope Francis has “catapulted” the concerns of working people and placed them at the center of the conversation for the Church, said an all-star panel assessing Francis’s influence on the labor movement.

Newly elected Governor Phil Murphy of New Jersey joined with Cardinal Joseph Tobin of Newark and Richard Trumka, president of the American Federation of Labor and Congress of Industrial Organizations (AFL-CIO), at Seton Hall University on Tuesday evening to offer reflections on the significance of the first five years of the Francis papacy for working men and women.

The event, titled “Solidarity is Our Word,” served as a commemoration of the long history of the American Catholic Church’s support of the labor movement, an honest reckoning with its current challenges, and a celebration of a pope that has given it a megaphone in recent years.

A Gilded Age 

Kicking off the event, Tobin spoke in personal terms of his long-held conviction of the importance of unions in the United States. While his father was a white-collar worker for General Motors and was not a member of the United Automobile Workers (UAW) union, he said his father made it clear to the Tobin household that they benefited from organized workers.

“We ate well…we had clothes, and we had possibilities with our lives because of the UAW,” said Tobin.

Tobin offered a strong indictment of the modern market economy and the powerful interests of corporate lobbies that control resources without sharing them with workers, marking a sharp decline in America’s long-standing influence of unions.

“In some ways, we are living in a second gilded age. To gild something is to cover it in gold, to make it look attractive and more valuable than it really is. So we can see the stock market going up…but the new wealth is not being shared widely and it creates much more resentment than it does investment. We give billions in tax breaks to the über-rich, and throw a few scraps to the working class,” he lamented.

“Ours is a gilded age, but not a golden age,” he declared, while also noting that Francis has served as the antithesis to a culture defined by consumption and greed.

“In just 5 short years, he’s challenged the Catholic Church to remember the basics,” said Tobin. “He is exactly the opposite of gilded.”

Trumka, who is head of the largest federation of unions in the United States, concurred with that assessment and said that the core of Francis’s message for working people has been a message of love and a reminder that “our lives count.”

“Five years ago Pope Francis was elected to the papacy and in his first moments of pope he ministered to a world deeply hurt by the financial crisis of 2008 and its aftermath, where it seemed at every turn, working people paid the price of unmitigated greed on Wall Street,” Trumka reflected.

“When Pope Francis says solidarity is our word, his message contradicts the morality adopted by so many of the world’s wealthy and powerful,” he continued. “His message is an affront to selfishness…it exposes the illusion and reveals the truth, which is that we are bound together by love and that we must care for each other and for our world.”

Murphy, who in his first three months as governor has already partnered with both the AFL-CIO and the Catholic Church on several initiatives, said that the past five years of the Francis papacy have been “faith restoring for so many.”

He praised Francis for offering “voice and hope to working men and women in every corner of the globe,” and said that his example as pope has reminded the world that “the root of leadership isn’t braggadocio, it is humility. The goal of leadership isn’t individual achievement, but the betterment of society.”

Murphy said that he believed that the message of solidarity that is preached by Francis should become not just “our word, but our default attitude.”

The Janus Case: The Church Stands with Unions in Court

Tuesday’s event comes just one week after the Supreme Court heard oral arguments in the case of Janus v. AFSCME – in which the Court will decide as to whether unions can collect fees from public workers who are non-members to cover the costs of representing those workers and negotiating contracts.

Trumka maintained that case is of critical importance to the future of the union movement and bemoaned the fact that there are those that want to “benefit from all the work unions do without paying [a] fair share.”

The United States Conference of Catholic Bishops (USCCB) filed an amicus brief for the case in support of the union in strong terms – comparing it to Roe v. Wade – and stating that the case is critical for the future of workers’ rights to organize.

He added that he was “profoundly grateful” to the USCCB for filing the brief and said “at stake is whether the workers’ movement will have a fair and free vehicle to carry out Pope Francis’s message of solidarity.”

Tobin added that it was his privilege to join with his fellow bishops in support of the unions and told the audience of mostly union members that “we are standing with you now as we await the Supreme Court’s decision.”

Challenges Ahead: The Environment, Women, and Immigrants

Despite widespread praise for Francis, all of the panelists agreed that the pope has done more than just offered a booster shot to the working movement, and that he’s also offered challenging demands.

Trumka said that while he knows the Holy Father has the back of unions, it doesn’t mean they’re off the hook.

“He’s said to us in the labor movement that we must embrace prophecy and innovation,” said Trumka.

Among those innovations, he said that the movement must do a better job of heeding Francis’s call in his 2015 encyclical Laudato si’ to respond to the ecological crisis at hand. While he said that the unions have made progress on this front, he said there was work ahead as they aim to “transition to a low carbon economy.”

He also said that Francis has reminded the labor movement that they cannot forget the injustices faced by women, particularly those in the workforce.

“Pope Francis has spoken of chauvinism that always wants to control the woman,” said Trumka. “For too many, the workplace is a setting of dangerous vulnerability. Our pope challenges all of us to ask ourselves, ‘what part do we play in the vulnerabilities of others?’”

He also cautioned that those involved in organized labor must not merely be self-referential, but that “the pope urges us to look externally, as well.”

He cited the thousands of men and women both inside and outside unions who live in anxiety over their undocumented immigration status – who are beneficiaries of DACA or TPS – and the fears they experience over the government potentially ending the very programs that protect them.

“These are our neighbors, these are our friends, this is us,” said Trumka, as he called on those present to embrace Francis’s call to “protect those who do not yet have rights.”

“Our solidarity, our unionism, must be the antithesis of social exclusion,” he said.

Catholic institutions must heed Pope Francis’ call to respect the worker

National Catholic Reporter, Feb 3, 2018, by Mary Kay Henry

(Unsplash/Greyson Joralemon)

Growing up in the pews of Holy Name parish in the suburbs of Detroit, my community of faith centered on respect for work and working people. We were taught to stand beside the most vulnerable among us and to respect the dignity of work. Our church stood for social justice and common good.

But in an era when many Americans’ real wages have stagnated and working moms and dads worry about their kids’ economic prospects, many have felt that their church was standing on the sidelines when it came to matters of work. Far too often, working Catholics did not see their place of worship as someplace to turn for solidarity or support in trying times.

It has been inspiring to see Pope Francis lead a renewal of this question. He has called on the church to once again stand squarely alongside working families.

In a moving 2015 speech to organizers of popular movements, Francis reminded us that “the first task is to put the economy at the service of peoples.” When it comes to how people work and live in our modern economy, Francis has boldly called for “us not be afraid to say it: we want change, real change, structural change.”

These calls have reverberated throughout the church. Just this month, American bishops took a stand when they filed an amicus brief opposing an attack on working people that is now before our Supreme Court.

American Catholic institutions, as employers themselves, have an important role to play in joining the church’s movement to make real change. Many are already acting responsibly by fully respecting the rights of the people they employ. Some are not, which dismays those of us who believe our church should lead the way when it comes to creating meaningful work for all.

The reality today is that many adjunct faculty at Catholic colleges and universities are facing a precarious and uncertain future because their compensation is so low. Many are forced to drive long distances from campus to campus just to piece together enough courses to make a living. They often face last-minute course cancellations that leave them wondering when their next paycheck will come. Despite high levels of education and credentials, they are forced to eke out livings at subsistence wages. In some cases, they are driven to extreme poverty and forced to rely on food stamps or even live out of their cars.

As a result, a growing number of faculty who teach at Catholic institutions have decided to join together in unions to advocate for secure and decent work.

The church has long supported working people’s right to organize unions. Francis has reaffirmed that support. Last year, he met with me and a group of fellow labor union leaders from around the world, calling on us to build organizations that defend “human values in a profit-driven global economy.”

It has been heartening to see many examples of Catholic and Jesuit colleges and universities honoring faculty members’ rights as workers by not interfering when they decide to organize unions. Last fall, Fordham University leadership worked collaboratively with their employees as contingent faculty formed a union. To date, professors at more than a dozen other faith-based higher education institutions have successfully started unions.

But other institutions have declined to extend the same respect to their faculty. Administrators at Seattle University and St. Martin’s University have attempted to block their faculty from forming unions with dubious claims that they are somehow not obligated to recognize their employees’ rights because they are Catholic institutions. Our faith must not be distorted to serve as an instrument that holds back our brothers and sisters, but instead should serve to light their path forward to a better life.

I stand with adjunct and contingent faculty in Catholic higher education in calling for their institutions to work constructively with their employees’ organizations to create sustainable, family-supporting work. That starts with acknowledging that contingent faculty, like all working people, have the right to organize unions.

As Francis has said, ordinary people want to be “artisans of their own destiny. They want to advance peacefully towards justice. They do not want forms of tutelage or interference by which those with greater power subordinate those with less.”

Amen. It is time for leaders who hold power in Catholic institutions to stop interfering with the rights of their employees and to respect the dignity of their work.

[Mary Kay Henry is president of the Service Employees International Union, a 2-million member union of people in service and care jobs in North America.]

Video of Fr. Clete Kiley’s Remarks at the Chicago Labor Rally, February 24, 2018

Fr. Clete Kiley’s remarks for the Chicago Labor Solidarity Day, February 24, 2018

Remarks in Support of AFCSME vs. Janus: Fr. Clete Kiley, February 24, 2018

Solidarity is the great rallying cry of organized Labor. Solidarity is also one of the most important theological principles of the Catholic Faith. Because solidarity is at stake today the Catholic Bishops of the United States stand with AFCSME, with the Labor Movement and with the millions of union members across this country. The Catholic Bishops of the United States have filed an amicus curiae brief in the Janus case in support of AFCSME.

The brief draws upon more than 125 years of Church Doctrine that supports workers, upholds their right to form unions and to bargain collectively. As Pope Francis says, “There is no good society without a good union, and there is no good union that is not reborn every day in the peripheries”. Unions are a positive good for society in Catholic Doctrine. The Catholic Church has never distinguished between public and private sector unions. The Catholic Bishops of the United States have been clear in their opposition to right-to-work laws since the passage of the Taft-Hartley Act. The Bishops believe the right of workers to organize is substantially weakened by “so called right-to-work laws”. The Catholic Bishops’ Conference reminds us “no U.S. bishop has ever expressed support for right-to-work laws.”

Make no mistake, brothers and sisters, what is at stake in the Janus case is whether or not we will have national right-to-work. And this begins with a phony and divisive distinction between public and private sector unions. We know they mean to get rid of all unions. WE are not fooled. Such a move, the Catholic Church fears, would irrevocably damage the capacity of workers to exercise their rights.

This Supreme Court case is, pure and simple, an attack on unions under the phony guise of free speech. The man who brought this lawsuit took a good union job, agreed to the union terms, and then sued on free speech grounds because he did not like some political positions taken by his union. The Church might even agree with his objection. But we would also teach that as a union member, he has the right to push for reform in his union, in fact, he has an obligation to push for such reform. As Pope Francis says “a union needs to be reborn each day”. The solution to Mr. Janus’gripe is not the wholesale destruction of our Labor Movement.

And so, we pray: O God, who has blessed working people with the gift of solidarity in the service of justice and equality, be with us today. Solidarity is our rallying cry. Solidarity is a true gift from you that makes the crooked ways straight, and levels the mountains of economic inequality.

Let us cherish this gift of solidarity now. Give us the fullness of this gift today, for we dearly need it to face the odds against us. Solidarity must prevail. Solidarity must take precedence over the rugged individualism that destroys the common good of our nation.

As Pope Francis says, O Lord: “Solidarity- this word strikes fear in the more developed world. It is almost a dirty word for them. But it is our word!”  Rally the brothers and sisters now! Solidarity is our word. We are all in this together. May our Solidarity move their hearts and open their minds. May it strike fear where it suits Your purpose, O Lord. Solidarity today. Solidarity next Tuesday at the Supreme Court. Solidarity forever!  Amen.

Fr. Michael Seavey at Supreme Court on Feb. 26, 2018 during rally for Labor

Fr. Michael Seavey, Supreme Court rally for Labor, February 26, 2018

Thanks and gratitude for all of you gathered here today and for the tens of millions of our sisters and brothers with us in spirit. Thanks and gratitude for the work you do daily in every type of job and every sector of profession. Thanks and gratitude for your work raising families and forming true communities. May God bless all of you with peace and joy!

The right for workers to organize and form labor unions has been supported and endorsed by Official Catholic teaching through the teaching office of the popes since 1891. In that year, Pope Leo XIII condemning working and living conditions fostered by the Industrial Revolution, called on Catholic bishops throughout the world to, “Support those who strive to unite working men of various grades into associations, help them with their advice and means, and enable them to obtain fitting and profitable employment.”

Over a century later, both Pope John Paul II and Pope Benedict XVI echoed that by teaching respectively, unions are “indispensable elements of social life, especially in modern industrialized societies”, and are needed now “even more than in the past, as a prompt and far-sighted response…”.

And the current Holy Father, Pope Francis says it as only Pope Francis does, “There is no good society without a good union, and there is no good union that is not reborn every day in the peripheries, that does not transform discarded stones of the economy into its cornerstones.”

In our nation’s history, there has been one institution and only one institution that has consistently advocated for, defended and promoted working people. That institution is not the government, it is not any political party, nor is it any think tank or corporation. The only institution that has consistently stood by working women and men at all times and under all circumstances are labor unions.

It is no coincidence that the fewer people organized in labor unions, the wider the income and wealth gap in our nation. It is no coincidence that the fewer people organized into labor unions, the more people there are lacking adequate health insurance. It is no coincidence that the fewer people organized into labor unions, there are more people working two and three jobs to make ends meet. This is not conducive to healthy family life or healthy human relationships or healthy sense of self-worth.

Anyone who believes labor unions have lived out their usefulness is living a fool’s dream.  Anyone who believes they can stand alone against the forces of economic exploitation and financial greed has embraced the devil’s bargain.

Try standing alone before “efficiency” determinations downsize your office; leaving you on the outside looking in. Try standing alone before “economic emergencies” rob your pension funds while corporate executives receive salary increases and hefty bonuses. Try standing alone when a recent diagnosis on your family health plan coincides with a soon-to-be layoff targeting only you. You will soon find yourself discarded on the lonely heap of used and abused workers lost in a heartless wasteland.

There is a saying that anyone willing to trade liberty for security deserves neither. That needs to be extended to say “anyone willing to trade solidarity for individual freedom has neither.” That’s “the devil’s bargain”, and” the devil’s bargain” is the petitioner’s argument before the US Supreme Court this morning.

Only in true community do we discover our true identity and the meaning and purpose of our life. True communities are built upon and endure with love and justice. Separating individuals from supportive and protective true communities like unions is a recipe for divide and conquer, isolation and bitter loneliness, and a corrosive anger lashing out at perceived scapegoats as the culprits for their own decline. True community transforms society from the inside out; especially from the heart and soul of every person discarded on the margins of society’s abundance.

The dark forces of economic exploitation, condemned by Pope Leo in 1891 and consistently condemned by popes ever since still face us today. They are fueled by amassed wealth and power; and move against the forces of justice, true community, and true freedom. Their true identity, covered by a veneer of concern for liberty and individual rights, becomes readily apparent when the real agenda comes to the forefront.

The recent federal tax legislation signed into law made a media spectacle of throwing working people a bone. Meanwhile the meat was tossed to those already wealthy and the bill to pay for it all is passed on to everyone’s grandchildren. That was a setback!

We are experiencing and will experience more setbacks because many decks are stacked against us. We will endure these setbacks because we walk with righteousness. No matter the setbacks, keep moving forward. No matter the hostility from a well-financed opposition, keep moving forward. And keep moving forward together.

Whether we win or lose in there today, truth is on our side and no amount of money can purchase truth. Truth always prevails, and truth motivates our just cause. Tell the truth about unions and let the people organize without obstacles to bargain collectively for the common good.

Jesus said, “I have come to set the earth on fire, and how I wish it were already blazing.” Return to your homes and light the fires of solidarity across this nation. Go back home and form communities, true communities where everyone is welcomed and embraced. Go back home and welcome male and female, young and old, rich and poor, worker and supervisor, black, white, Latinx, API and all ethnicities; straight, the LGBTQ community and all orientations; liberal or conservative and all political persuasions, peoples of all faiths or of no faith at all.

Go back home, and form true communities with invitations to everyone who comes into your circles of life. Form true communities and let all who embrace the invitation take their rightful place. Make everyone welcomed and call forth everyone’s gifts to make and shape a community that takes responsibility for the common good of all our people.

Give to all reason to hope. Hope is one of the most precious commodities in our world today. Hope will not die so long as we keep moving forward. Hope will not die so long as there are true communities for people to feel welcomed, safe and valued. Solidarity forever and God’s blessings on you and all your loved ones. Thank you.




Blog: Catholic tradition and pastoral practice sides with labor and organizing workers

Feb 26, 2018, by Fr. Tim Graff, National Catholic Reporter Opinion

As a pastor, I hear the struggles of individuals and working families every day, including those who live below the poverty line even though they work full-time. Listening to their stories through my faith perspective compels me to advocate for the dignity of each worker.  But it is also the church’s history of supporting workers who’ve been oppressed that inspires me to be vocal about this issue.

Now all of us have a choice to make: whether we will follow our values and history, or not. Today, the U.S. Supreme Court will hear oral arguments in a case that could have a negative impact on working families across the United States.

The crux of Janus v. AFSCME (American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees) is whether trade unions representing public employees have a right to collect money from people who opt out of joining their designated union. It’s important for unions to collect these fees because they’re able to bargain for better wages, for benefits like healthcare and for raising standards for all workers — including those who are not unionized but are working in industries where there’s a strong union presence.

If Janus is victorious, all state and local government employment — public employment — will be considered “right-to-work,” and unions will be weakened as a result.  ” Right-to-work ” is a misnomer used by people who don’t really respect workers’ rights. “Right-to-work” laws in fact make it harder for workers to organize and thus they substantially weaken workers’ abilities to fight for dignified salaries and benefits. It’s my belief that all workers have the right to earn a dignified salary that would allow them to support themselves and their families and gain a pathway to the middle class. And I believe they have the right to organize so those salaries and benefits are available to them.

For years, I’ve advocated for our country’s working poor: publicly supporting unions like 32BJ SEIU, which represents security guards, food service employees in schools, airport workers and many others in New Jersey and elsewhere.  The fact is unions like 32BJ are vital because they not only offer job protections for their members; unions also help lift up the voices not just of their members, but of all workers.  Throughout their history, unions have led to safer working conditions; family-sustaining wages; and pensions and benefits, among other victories.

Our church has also stood in solidarity with working people for centuries.

In the late 19th Century, Pope Leo XIII published an encyclical, Rerum Novarum, expressing support for human dignity, workers’ rights, and labor unions.  He knew unions steadfastly advocated for the well-being of workers and their families.

In the 1940s, Dominican Fr. Jacques Loew pioneered a movement compelling priests to work and live among workers in factories so that they could experience working-class life.

In his 1981 encyclical, Laborem Exercens, Pope John Paul II declared that unions were ‘indispensable … for the struggle for social justice.”

It’s this history of solidarity and social justice work that inspires me to stand with fellow Catholic leaders to ask our Supreme Court justices to preserve union rights: not just for the public sector, but to avoid threats to private-sector organizing in the future.

I live and work to uphold the Second Commandment, which compels us all to “love thy neighbor as thyself.”  We cannot “love thy neighbor” if we turn a blind eye to income inequality rather than take steps to remediate it.

It’s imperative that people in power preserve workers’ freedom to stick together and bargain for their rights on the job. 32BJ and others help workers achieve these goals. They boost families and make entire neighborhoods and communities stronger. I pray you will join me in helping to ensure that those in power take that moral imperative into account.

[Fr. Tim Graff is the director of the Office of Human Concerns for the Archdiocese of Newark in New Jersey, which represents 1.4 million Catholics in 215 parishes in Northeast New Jersey.]

Catholic teaching supports labor unions, Bishop David Zubik says

Monday, February 19, 2018, Pittsburgh Catholic

Recently, I spotted a bumper sticker that made me smile. “The labor movement: The folks who brought you the weekend.”

As a bishop, of course, I work on weekends. But I get the point. I grew up in a union household. My father, a proud member of Local #590, was able to support our family on his wages as a “green grocer” in our local market because of the leadership of his labor union. The same could be said for almost every family with whom I grew up. None of us was wealthy. But we got along just fine on one income so Mom — today it might be Dad — could stay home and raise children. We had time off for vacation. We could access medical care. Workers who were treated unfairly by their bosses had someone to go to bat for them.

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. More than 125 years ago, Cardinal James Gibbons of Baltimore drew upon the groundbreaking 1891 encyclical of Pope Leo XIII, “Rerum Novarum,” to support the right of workers to organize and to bargain for a just wage. In 20th-century western Pennsylvania, several prominent Catholics led unions, with the spiritual support of our own Msgr. Charles Owen Rice (who, by the way, wrote a regular article in the newsletter that informed my dad’s union).

Church teaching about the value and importance of work and the right of workers to organize has remained strong. In his teaching encyclical “Laborem Exercens” (“On Human Labor”), Pope St. John Paul II summed up Catholic teaching: “The specific role of unions is to secure the just rights of workers within the framework of the common good of the whole of society.” Just last year Pope Francis told trade unionists in Italy, “There is no good society without a good union, and there is no good union that is not reborn every day in the peripheries, that does not transform the discarded stones of the economy into its cornerstone.”

Democracy at work

Usually this is a topic that I have addressed in my homily at the annual Labor Day Mass at St. Benedict the Moor Church, rather than during Lent. However, there is a special reason I am raising it now. A U.S. Supreme Court case from Illinois, Janus v. AFSCME, threatens to tear down the legal structures that allow workers to organize and, if they gain a majority, to bargain collectively.

This case is about far more than unions. It affects any employer that stands for any kind of principle. For instance, when the church hires someone to work at a parish, a diocesan ministry, a Catholic university or health center, they are expected to do that work according to the teachings of the church, and not to do or say anything publicly that would disparage Catholic faith and morals. Employees sign an agreement to that effect, and may lose their jobs if they fail to keep the agreement.

The man who brought the lawsuit took a union job, agreed to the union terms, and then sued on free speech grounds because he objected to the union’s political positions. It’s similar to someone who has taken a job in the Catholic Church arguing that he should be allowed to keep his job while also publicly advocating for abortion. He knew the terms of employment when he accepted them.

As a union member, he has the right to argue within that union for what he believes. I urge any Catholic union member to push for reform of union policies that may occasionally be unjust or wrong-headed. That’s democracy at work. But if the Supreme Court rules that union political advocacy violates the free speech rights of someone who has agreed to a union job, that ruling will threaten any organization that takes a stand on any issue.

This court case is both complicated and significant. It has the potential to overrule the statutes of state legislatures across our land as they pertain to labor, the role of employers and the best interests of workers.

Society as a whole

Unions are already struggling. Only 6.5 percent of workers in the private sector have union representation. The public sector is higher, but still a minority at 34.4 percent. Yet, the very existence of unions benefits even those who do not belong — raising wages, bringing family benefits and ensuring worker safety. Unions are especially needed where workers are taken advantage of, as Pope Francis said, “on the peripheries.”

I don’t agree with every position taken by every labor union. But I believe — as the Catholic bishops of this country have long believed — that unions benefit society as a whole. Like all human institutions, they are flawed. Their own rank-and-file, however, are empowered to reform them. When a beneficial institution is flawed, we should seek to fix it, not destroy it.

“Solidarity!” is the great rallying cry of organized labor, and one of the most important theological principles of the church. We are all in this together. Those of us who are strong need to stand with those of us who are weak, so that we can all thrive together. We in the church need to support our sisters and brothers in unions, as together — in both private sectors and public sectors — we work for a more just, pro-life and pro-family society.

And remember: thank a union member if you had a nice weekend. If my dad were alive, he’d be most grateful.

Catholic bishops side with labor unions in Supreme Court case

A general view of the U.S. Supreme Court building in Creative Commons/Duncan Lock

By  | January 20, 2018, Religion News Service

WASHINGTON (RNS) — U.S. Roman Catholic bishops are backing public sector unions in an upcoming Supreme Court case, pitting church leaders against the Trump administration and conservatives in a legal battle over how organized labor is financed.

In an amicus brief filed on Friday (Jan. 19) in the case of Janus v. American Federation of State, County, and Municipal Employees, the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops sides with the union, which is being challenged by the State of Illinois over its right to collect money from nonmembers for collective bargaining.

The bishops equated the effect of a ruling against the unions to the landmark high court decisions, Roe v. Wade and Obergefell v. Hodges, which respectively legalized abortion and same-sex marriage.

A judgment against AFSCME, the brief says, “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.”

AFSCME, the nation’s largest union of public employees, argues that it needs nonmembers to pay “fair-share fees” to manage the costs of representing all employees in collective bargaining, as they are legally allowed to do, according to the 1977 ruling Abood v. Detroit Board of Education.

The Trump administration’s Office of Solicitor General and conservative groups including the Becket Fund for Religious Liberty have filed briefs in support of overruling the Abood decision, agreeing with the plaintiff that the fees are an infringement on free speech.

The bishops note their longstanding opposition to “right-to-work” legislation, which doesn’t allow employees to be charged for union representation they didn’t ask for, even if they might benefit from it.

In their amicus brief, the current bishops pointed to various papal statements and encyclicals in support of labor rights dating back to 1891’s Rerum novarum, issued by Pope Leo XIII. Pope Francis is also cited in a footnote, specifically a June 2017 address in which he told delegates from the Confederation of Trade Unions in Italy, “There is no good society without a good union, and there is no good union that is not reborn every day in the peripheries, that does not transform the discarded stones of the economy into its cornerstones.”

The Catholic Church’s historical pro-labor stance included then bishops’ opposition to the 1947 Taft-Hartley Act, which authorized states to pass “right-to-work” laws.

Despite this history, the latest brief is something of a shift: bishops did not file a brief in a case that dealt with almost the exact same issue roughly two years ago, Friedrichs v. California Teachers Association. President Barack Obama’s U.S. Office of Solicitor General sided with unions in that case, which it resulted in a 4-4 stalemate a the Supreme Court in 2016 — just a few months after the death of Justice Antonin Scalia, who was expected to rule against the labor unions.

Oral arguments for Janus v. American Federation of State, County, and Municipal Employees are scheduled for February 28.

Pope vows to eliminate temp labor at Vatican

/ Catholic Labor Network

Every year, before the holidays, Pope Francis gathers the Vatican’s lay employees and their families to honor their service. He gives a short address praising their work and offering spiritual and temporal guidance for the year to come. This year, though, he also veered into a conversation about temporary workers. The Holy Father, who frequently preaches that workers deserve secure and dignified employment, had learned from one of the career employees that the Vatican itself employed temporary workers, and this concerned and alarmed him.

The Pope did not seem to be referring to temp workers in the American sense (i.e. workers obtained from temp agencies) but the Italian one. Under Italian law, workers who have passed a probation period have considerable employment security – and employers seeking to evade this obligation often choose to employ “temporary” workers on fixed, short-term contracts shorter than the probation period. Francis vowed to eliminate the practice in the Vatican as a matter of conscience.

The other day I had a meeting with Cardinal Marx, who is the President of the Council of the Economy, and with Monsignor Ferme, the Secretary, and I said: “I don’t want illegal work in the Vatican.” I apologize if this still exists…It’s a problem of conscience for me, because we can’t teach the Social Doctrine of the Church and then do these things that aren’t right.

Thank you, Francis, for affirming that employment is not just a matter of economics or even of law, but of conscience. You can read the Holy Father’s full remarks HERE.