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.