There is no doubt about the fact that Catholic social teaching going back to Pope Leo XIII’s encyclical Rerum Novarum (1891) has strongly endorsed the individual employee’s right to join a union and, in many cases, actively encouraged employees to form labor associations.
Rerum Novarum itself states, for example, that “to enter into a [trade union] is the natural right of man; and the State has for its office to protect natural rights, not to destroy them.”
But the fact that the state is duty-bound to protect each employee’s freedom to join a union does not imply that an employee, and a Catholic employee in particular, may licitly join any union. In 1912, for example, Leo XIII’s immediate successor, Pius X, directed Catholic workers in Germany to confirm for themselves that a non-Catholic union does not violate any Catholic religious principles before joining it:
[I]f Catholics are to be permitted to join the trade unions, those associations must avoid everything that is not in accord, either in principle or practice, with the teachings and commandments of the Church or the proper ecclesiastical authorities. Similarly, everything is to be avoided in their literature or public utterances or actions, which in the above view would incur censure.
Leo XIII himself issued a similar caution in his encyclical Longinqua, addressed to the American bishops. Writing with Catholic workers specifically in mind, Leo said it was their duty not to associate themselves with unions if they judged their words or deeds to be immoral:
[W]orking classes . . . assuredly have the right to unite in association for the promotion of their interests. . . . But it is very important to take heed with whom they associate, lest while seeking aid for the improvement of their condition they may be [imperiling] weightier interests. The most effectual precaution against this peril is to determine with themselves at no time or in any matter to be parties to the violation of justice.
And in our time, top officers of unions and union conglomerates like the Communications Workers of America (CWA), the American Federation of Teachers (AFT), the National Education Association (NEA), the United Autoworkers (UAW), the Service Employees International Union (SEIU), the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees (AFSCME) and the AFL-CIO have all used their status as heads of large organizations to promote the legal recognition of homosexual unions, as recently mandated in all 50 states by a 5-4 U.S. Supreme Court majority. (For details regarding Organized Labor’s long record of promoting same-sex marriage, see the second link below.)
According to the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith (CDF), the body charged with promulgating and defending Catholic teachings, “all Catholics are obliged to oppose the legal recognition of homosexual unions . . . .” Elaborating on the CDF’s 2003 statement, in November 2009 the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops (USCCB) explained that “a grave injustice” is committed whenever the state ignores “the unique and proper place of husbands and wives, the place of mothers and fathers, and especially the rights of children, who deserve from society clear guidance as they grow to sexual maturity.” By committing such an injustice, the state “intentionally deprive[s] children of the right to a mother and a father.”
For this reason alone, it is highly questionable whether a faithful Catholic employee can in good conscience ever join the CWA, the AFT, the NEA, the UAW, the SEIU, AFSCME, the AFL-CIO, or any of their affiliated unions.
Moreover, the understanding of marriage as exclusively a male-female union is not the only Church doctrine that multiple large unions have bitterly opposed, with unionized workers’ compulsory dues and fees supplying the megaphone.
Large unions such as AFSCME and the NEA have repeatedly branded Americans who support the Catholic Church’s core moral teaching that innocent human life should be legally protected at all stages, including before birth, as retrograde opponents of individual liberty and human rights.
The AFL-CIO union conglomerate’s support for abortion on demand has been less unabashed than its support for the redefinition of marriage. But contrary to what some Catholic apologists for Big Labor have claimed over the years, the AFL-CIO has been far from “neutral” on the issue of abortion. As far back as 1989, the AFL-CIO was part of a coalition of organizations that submitted a brief to the U.S. Supreme Court urging the justices to “strike down an Illinois statute requiring abortion clinics to meet stricter standards and an Ohio law requiring parental consent [for] girls under 18,” as the National Right to Life News reported at the time.
And in 1988, the Public Employees Division of the AFL-CIO, AFSCME and the NEA were part of a coalition submitting a brief to the High Court in Webster v. Reproductive Health Services. Officers of the aforementioned unions sided with abortion facilities who were seeking to strike down a Missouri law generally prohibiting the use of state and local taxpayer dollars to finance abortions or “encouraging and counseling” a woman to have an abortion. Effectively, the unions joining the brief took a stance in support of unrestricted legal abortion.
Since the turn of the millennium, pro-abortion activism by major unions and their affiliates has intensified. In 2003, for example, the UAW brass tried, unsuccessfully, to make abortion coverage a part of health insurance for employees of the then-Big Three automakers and two major auto parts manufacturers. In 2004, AFSCME cosponsored an abortion advocacy march on Washington, D.C., that had been initiated by Planned Parenthood and the Feminist Majority. Since the so-called Affordable Care Act was adopted in 2010, union officials have actively opposed efforts by the USCCB and other pro-life organizations to limit the extent to which this law promotes abortion.
In order to heed Leo XIII’s admonition not to be “parties to the violation of justice,” Catholic employees should likely resolve not to join the NEA union or any union affiliated with the AFL-CIO or the Change to Win Federation (CTWF) union conglomerates. Catholic employees who are currently members of any such unions should likely wish to resign.
Theoretically, at least, it is possible a Catholic who supports traditional marriage and opposes abortion could still materially cooperate with union officials who are battling the Church on these grave matters. But this could only be so if the Catholic employee had a sufficient reason for joining the union to permit the evil effects that he or she does not condone. In practice, it is hard to imagine under what circumstances that might be the case.
Consequently, all Catholic clergy in the U.S., including Chicago Archbishop Blase Cupich, have a duty to council their flocks to, at the very least, examine their consciences very carefully before they join the CWA, the UAW, the SEIU, the AFT, the NEA, AFSCME et al.
But on September 17, sadly, the Archbishop sent a very different message. Speaking at a union hall before an audience that including high-ranking state and city officers of the AFL-CIO and the militantly pro-abortion and pro-same sex marriage AFT, Cupich was lavish in his praise: “You put your faith in action. You are Catholic social teaching at work.” (See the first link below for more information.)
Cupich also impugned the motives of the overwhelming majority of Americans who support Right to Work laws, now on the books in 25 states. Right to Work laws simply prohibit the termination of employees for refusal to join or bankroll an unwanted union. While the two federal labor statutes that authorize union officials to seek and obtain the power to force employees to pay union dues or fees, or be fired, often create a dilemma in which an employee risks losing his or her livelihood if he follows his or her conscience, Right to Work laws are protective of religious liberty. As National Right to Work Legal Defense Foundation attorney Bruce Cameron has pointed out, employees of all faiths “who have religious objections to joining a union and are covered” by a state Right to Work law are “completely free to follow their conscience.”
Nevertheless, Cupich suggested the Catholic Church is “duty-bound” to “challenge” efforts to pass Right to Work laws: “We have to ask: Do these laws undermine the capacity of unions to organize, to represent workers, and to negotiate contracts?”
The answer to the Archbishop’s question is: Right to Work laws do not undermine in any way union activities as long as they are respectful of each employee’s personal freedom. But as Pope Saint John XXIII wrote in his 1963 encyclical Pacem in Terris, man’s “personal dignity requires . . . that he enjoy freedom and be able to make up his own mind when he acts.” When Organized Labor infringes upon the legitimate rights of the individual, it should be unapologetically opposed. The state, as the American bishops wrote in a 1919 pastoral letter, “must respect and protect the divinely established rights of the individual and the family.” Effectively, prohibiting forced union dues and fees safeguards the “divinely established rights of the individual.”
Archbishop Cupich is mistaken to suggest there is something wrong with such protections, especially in light of the radically pro-abortion and pro-same sex marriage activism of union officialdom across the U.S. in our time.