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Defense, criticism of unions in US bishops’ Labor Day statement

August 25, 2011

In its annual Labor Day statement, the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops rued “new efforts to restrict collective bargaining rights” but noted that “some unions in some places have taken public positions that the Church cannot support.”

Written by Bishop Stephen Blaire of Stockton, chairman of the bishops’ Committee on Domestic Justice and Human Development, the statement examines the “human costs and moral challenges of a broken economy” and notes that “one of the most disturbing aspects of current public discussion is how little focus there is on massive unemployment and what to do to get people back to work.” Drawing on papal social encyclicals, the statement strongly affirms workers’ rights to form unions.

Yet the statement makes clear that the Church does not endorse “every tactic of unions or every outcome of collective bargaining.” Bishop Blaire writes:

Our Church continues to teach that unions remain an effective instrument to protect the dignity of work and the rights of workers … This does not mean every outcome of bargaining is responsible or that all actions of particular unions--or for that matter employers--merit support. Unions, like other human institutions, can be misused or can abuse their role. The Church has urged leaders of the labor movement to avoid the temptations of excessive partisanship and the pursuit of only narrow interests. Workers and their unions, as well as employers and their businesses, all have responsibility to seek the common good, not just their own economic, political, or institutional interests.

The teaching that workers have the right to choose freely to form and belong to unions and other associations without interference or intimidation is strong and consistent. At the same time, some unions in some places have taken public positions that the Church cannot support, which many union members may not support, and which have little to do with work or workers’ rights. Leaders of the Church and the labor movement cannot avoid these differences, but should address them in principled, respectful and candid dialogue. This should not keep us from working on our own and together to advance common priorities of protecting worker rights, economic and social justice, overcoming poverty, and creating economic opportunity for all.


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