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Mailbag: Are Labor Unions Encouraged by the Catholic Church?

By Peter Mirus ( bio - articles - email ) | Oct 13, 2009

"How does a Catholic in business reconcile Caritas in Veritate (and earlier encyclicals) with widely accepted business theory and practices regarding labor. 'Union Free' environments are preached in business schools. As a member of SHRM [Society for Human Resource Management] I have many opportunities to attend seminars on the subject of how to stay union free or how to make unions irrelevant - and to get continuing education credits for attending. Similarly, such topics are taught at university business schools and are part of training for various HR certifications. Catholic University is one site I can attend for such training.

"I suppose that one might have concerns over a particular union or union campaign, but is it consistent with Catholic teaching to oppose unions always and everywhere? Does respecting the dignity of workers require accepting their desire to exercise a collective voice through a union? If so, are some legal rights of business to oppose worker organizing out of bounds for Catholics?"

-- Philip (Waldorf, Maryland)

The Church encourages the formation of trade union organizations to defend the rights of workers, within the context of what the Church requires (as a matter of morality) or encourages (as a matter of prudence) for defending the dignity of the person.

I'll focus on Caritas in Veritate as the most recent development of Church social teaching on this point, particularly since it strongly references prior documents (as you will see, the quotation below sources Rerum Novarum).  In fact, the document contains 159 footnotes.

In Caritas in Veritate the Pope reiterates this support for the formation of labor unions with a nod to difficulties posed to these organizations by the emergence of the global economy and the need to balance the good of the worker with the good of the consumer. I suggest that interested readers check out Chapter Two of Caritas in Veritate, specifically document section 25.

Through the combination of social and economic change, trade union organizations experience greater difficulty in carrying out their task of representing the interests of workers, partly because Governments, for reasons of economic utility, often limit the freedom or the negotiating capacity of labour unions. Hence 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 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.

Another interesting part of Caritas in Veritate pertinent to this subject is section 64, which includes the following passage.

While reflecting on the theme of work, it is appropriate to recall how important it is that labour unions — which have always been encouraged and supported by the Church — should be open to the new perspectives that are emerging in the world of work.

The simplest way to answer the reader's question is this way: the ideal situation is the absence of labor unions. The absence of labor unions will only be made possible by social justice that equally balances the dignity and legitimate needs of all parties, including the worker and the consumer. Therefore, it is likely that labor unions will always form a needed and legitimate part of society and the business community. Unilateral opposition to labor unions is not in accordance with the social teachings of the Church. However, certain labor unions or certain union positions should be opposed where they conflict with Her teachings.

"Justice", as I recall from my school days, consists in "giving each man his due", or "giving unto each man that which is due to him". There is plenty of debate, much it fueled by ignorance and human failings, as to what each man is due in the global economy. At the risk of opening up too many other discussions at this time, I will leave it at that.


Caritas in Veritate

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Peter Mirus is a business, marketing, and technology consultant with more than 20 years of experience working with companies and nonprofits, ranging from start-ups to large international organizations. From 2004-2014 he contributed articles on the Catholic Faith, culture, and business to the website.
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  • Posted by: wacondaseeds4507 - Oct. 08, 2019 2:42 PM ET USA

    I believe what Pope Francis is acknowledging is the challenge to speak with the spirit of love and not with self-righteousness.

  • Posted by: - Oct. 19, 2009 8:57 PM ET USA

    Peter, You should write more about the Catholic perspective in business as it relates to fairness and respect for employees. This is a very significant issue that shouldn't get sidetracked by pro-life/pro-choice litmus tests. Please stay on this topic a bit longer.

  • Posted by: - Oct. 17, 2009 1:09 PM ET USA

    "Is no one other than me amused at the notion of the NRA supporting "pro-life" candidates?" My police officer friend had a right-to-life rose on the butt of his handgun. No, there is no contradiction: defend innocent life from womb to tomb! As a broad principle, total pacifism is not Catholic--although it has been adopted INDIVIDUALLY by some saints. "The police: just minutes away when you have only seconds to spare." (But they write GREAT reports after your family is murdered.)

  • Posted by: Defender - Oct. 16, 2009 7:00 PM ET USA

    There have been unions that have separated from other unions over the Magisterium, I'm thinking of a particular Catholic school union. Though it isn't our experience, there have been Catholic unions in Europe, too.

  • Posted by: - Oct. 16, 2009 11:42 AM ET USA

    Is no one other than me amused at the notion of the NRA supporting "pro-life" candidates?

  • Posted by: - Oct. 15, 2009 6:34 PM ET USA

    Labor unions are the greatest supporters of abortion in this country: they provide greatest financial and political support to pro-abortion politicians. (By the same principle, but in reverse, I belong to the NRA: in no small part because they have gotten more pro-life candidates elected than anybody else.) In this country (and many others), to support unions is, in fact, to support abortion. So, does Catholic social teachings REQUIRE us to support pro-abortion organizations? No.

  • Posted by: DrJazz - Oct. 15, 2009 12:17 PM ET USA

    I prefer a re-wording of your conclusion: The ideal situation is the absence of labor unions GIVEN THE PRESENCE OF social justice... The original lets the "union free" crowd run off with only the first sentence. Until I know that my employer genuinely cares about my family's welfare, I'll be in favor of unions. Management will always tend to treat labor as another form of capital. I do agree, though, that union positions must be opposed where they conflict with the teachings of the Church.

  • Posted by: - Oct. 13, 2009 6:10 PM ET USA

    Peter, You are too quick to suggest that an "ideal situation would be the absence of labor unions." Do you regard unions as a necessary evil? At the birth of every union, there has been a history of abuse of workers. Whatever they later become, unions start with a need for protection of the workers. For better or for worse, unions are natural outcome in a free-enterprise democracy.