Union Rights and Responsibilities

The Cardinal Newman Society pointed out the other day that a slew of Jesuits at Marquette University wanted Gov. Walker of Wisconsin recalled. When asked why they did so, the spokesman for the Province would only confirm the signature of one of the Jesuit professors at Marquette and then referred the inquiring reporter to Forming Consciences for Faithful Citizenship (FC), the USCCB document on Catholic voting. Presumably, the Jesuits are appealing to the document’s position on unions in light of Gov. Walker’s ending the collective bargaining rights for most public sector unions.

Color me old-fashioned, but I’ve thought for years that it helps to actually read documents. So what do the bishops actually say about unions?

The first mention in the document has employers responsible for many things including allowing their workers to join a union. But then the bishops note that workers have responsibilities too. They write:

“Workers also have responsibilities—to provide a fair day’s work for a fair day’s pay, to treat employers and co-workers with respect, and to carry out their work in ways that contribute to the common good. Workers, employers, and unions should not only advance their own interests, but also work together to advance economic justice and the well-being of all.”

Please notice that employees and employers have a responsibility to the common good, to the “well-being of all.” This is important because the Holy Fathers like to remind us through Catholic social teaching that with rights come responsibilities. Pope Benedict put it this way in Caritas in veritate:

“Hence it is important to call for a renewed reflection on how rights presuppose duties, if they are not to become mere licence.”

The footnote after this line leads us to Blessed Pope John Paul II’s statement for the 2003 World Day of Peace. He said, recounting Blessed John XXIII’s wonderful document Pacem in terris, that

With the profound intuition that characterized him, John XXIII identified the essential conditions for peace in four precise requirements of the human spirit: truth, justice, love and freedom. Truth will build peace if every individual sincerely acknowledges not only his rights, but also his own duties towards others. Justice will build peace if in practice everyone respects the rights of others and actually fulfils his duties towards them. Love will build peace if people feel the needs of others as their own and share what they have with others, especially the values of mind and spirit which they possess. Freedom will build peace and make it thrive if, in the choice of the means to that end, people act according to reason and assume responsibility for their own actions.

Rights and duties, obligations and responsibilities go together. So when the bishops write about laborers and their responsibility towards the “well-being of all” they really mean it.

The bishops mention unions again later in FC and state that

Catholic social teaching supports the right of workers to choose whether to organize, join a union, and bargain collectively, and to exercise these rights without reprisal. It also affirms economic freedom, initiative, and the right to private property. Workers, owners, employers, and unions should work together to create decent jobs, build a more just economy, and advance the common good.

Again, with every right is a responsibility. Do the laborers of Wisconsin’s public sector have the right to bargain collectively? “Yes, they do,” says the Church.

Gov. Scott Walker

But don’t they also have the responsibility to “advance the common good”? “Yes, they do,” says the Church.

So who’s in charge of maintaining the common good, you ask? Well according to Catholic social teaching it’s the State.

Ahh, so here we get to the fundamental question. What happens when the State determines that employees, their own in this case, are failing to advance the common good? What if the State determines that the lack of accountability for workers, years of systemic underperformance as well as political corruption actually does real harm to the common good? What then?

Catholic social teaching is clear and consistent on this point. When your right gets in the way of the common good then your right may be trumped. In Rerum novarum Pope Leo XIII defended the natural right of private property against the Socialists. However, he admits that private property is not an absolute right. When the Fathers of the Second Vatican Council explained the right of religious liberty, even they provided the qualifying “within due limits.” If you fail your duty, you could lose your right.

The people of Wisconsin, despite what the good Jesuits at Marquette might have hoped, have determined that the current situation with the public sector union is hurting the common good. One way this happens is that the employer who gets the short end of any union abuse is the State itself, i.e. the body charged with maintaining that common good.

Here, then, is the moral of the story. Laborers have a right to unionize and to collectively bargain. They may not abuse that right at the expense of the common good. What union leaders in this country need to learn, as well as Catholics who defend unions, is that belonging to a union does not inoculate one from, you know, SIN. Union leaders and members are not as pure as the wind-driven snow. Unions are populated by people who are prone to the very same vices as the employers who can and have and do abuse workers. Therefore, belonging to unions does not exempt one from criticism, and being Catholic does not mean you have to blindly support unions.

My hope is that for the sake of the great tradition for unions in Catholic social teaching , Catholics like the Jesuits at Marquette can advise unions to avoid the harms to the common good that the people of Wisconsin have noticed again and again and again and again….



  • Tom

    That 25 Jesuits is nothing. Look at this:


    400 Catholic nuns have been identified who participated in the Walker recall. On the same site you can see that some nuns even cheated by signing the recall multiple times. That site is alsoTo the original source of the “25 Jseuits” storry too.

  • frmike

    First, the union’s rights have not been taken away. Their collective bargaining rights have been limited (now on a par with those of Federal employees), not removed. Secondly, the govt employee unions have been unethical and rapacious in pursuit of their selfish interest, causing demonstrable harm to the taxpayers and the common good.

    For example, “the Wisconsin Education Association Council, the largest teachers union in the state, abused collective bargaining for decades, resulting in the unnecessary siphoning of millions of dollars from Wisconsin public schools. Under current Wisconsin law, the identity of the insurance company that provides health coverage to school employees is a matter of collective bargaining in each school district.

    “In the majority of districts around the state, WEAC negotiators have used that law to pressure local school boards into purchasing coverage from WEA Trust, an insurance company established by and closely associated with the union.

    “WEA Trust offers very comprehensive health coverage, at a very high cost to schools”–above what other companies offering the same coverage charge.

    Ethically this puts the union on the same level as a racketeer who moves in on a territory and tells business owners from whom they’ll be buying their beer, olive oil, etc. from now on. Justice and common good have been trounced.

    It is now clear, since the passage of Walker’s legislation, that many, if not the majority, of employees have been in bondage to the unions. Now that they are not coerced by law to contribute, they,by the tens of thousands, have stopped paying their union dues. Freedom, to some degree, has been restored by Walker.

    The WEAC, by Catholic standards, should make a sincere act of contrition, provide material restitution to those harmed (yes, calculate what their racket cost the people and give it back to the state), and commit to amendment of life. Talk about a game-changer. If they ever did that–wow! No telling what kind of holy fire that might start in this nation.

    • Rich

      Fr. Mike,
      It is most unfair to compare unions to raketeers. The good people who work hard for the state deserve certain rights and privileges for their employment. It especially necessary to protect the workers from undo influence of a politically elected employer. The State has elected and appointed officials who oversee the working conditions and the benefits of the workers. The workers have the right to join in a collective to balance the power. I really doubt that the people of Wisconsin would agree that the policeman, the teacher and the custodian are unethical, either alone or in the collective. Paying the person who fills the potholes and shovels the snow a living wage is hardly the desire of a raketeer.
      The Union is part of the common of the common good, but it is not the role of a union negotiator to focus on the common good ahead of the intermediate good of the workers. Afterall, the state is not coming forth out of justice and generosity, but out of a more utilitarian framework of best service at the lowest cost. The state too often focuses on the electorate or the vocal taxpayer than the orphan and the widow, or the worker.
      The common good is held by the state when it is justly entrusted with it by the public. When we render unto Ceasar or Walker, we still are to hold them accountable to Christian value and to God’s Justice. The union can also be part of the work of the Kingdom, and should be encourage to be by the Church. We should hold out for the Justice of Solomon that is blessed by the life, death and resurrection of Jesus.
      When I hear Gov Walker sounding more like Christ, then I will believe that he has the Common Good at heart. Until that time I will stand with the workers under the patronage of St. Joseph, and say to the Pharaohs of Industry and Government, “Let My people Go!” At the Same time we will teach the Unions to be more like Moses and Aaron, speaking the words of Justice even when they have no particular personal gain ABOVE the Common Good.
      Finally, the Kingdom of God is not about the common Good, but about the Fullness of Good which is UNCOMMON – as it belongs to God alone. We are only pilgrims constantly moving towards that, and occasionally getting lost.

  • Name *Kerplunk

    Even if past labor union actions have lost sight of the common good, it does not necessarily follow that the state has a right to suspend collective bargaining. Politicians have reaped the benefits of these past labor agreements, gaining the support of public unions. It is the responsibilty of the state to negotiate more balanced agreements. Allow unions to collectively bargain, but do not roll over in the negotiation process. If the unions are in fact sacrificing the common good for their individual gain, the public will side with the state. By barring public sector unions the right to collective bargaining, the state will undoubtedly appear to be the aggressor.

    • Brian English

      Collective bargaining on behalf of public unions is inherently corrupt. FDR himself recognized that, as did George Meaney of the AFL/CIO. Collective bargaining was extended to public unions purely for political purposes, not to address any legitimate grievances of state workers.

  • TeaPot562

    A major problem in California and some other US states is that the union of government employees collects enough in dues from their members to control the elections of the city councils, Boards of Education and other elected officials with whom (theoretically) they are to negotiate pay, working conditions and other benefits.
    When a union controls the election of the officials with whom they are supposed to negotiate, WHO REPRESENTS THE TAXPAYERS?
    In this scenario, some govt employees who worked at jobs NOT requiring specific physical fitness (e.g., military, firemen or police) can retire in their mid-50s of age at 90% of their final year’s pay, and receive a pension for the next thirty years! This is a far better deal than most of the non-governmental employees can qualify for.
    In California, some cities such as Vallejo face bankruptcy because the pension expense alone now uses most of the tax money being collected, and no revenue exists to pay for current services for the citizens. This problem of unions electing the “employers” with whom they are supposed to negotiate wages, benefits and working conditions is subject to abuse, QED.

  • Katherine

    There are several disconnects in your post. Where does CST says that the State (particularly a single state/provincial government) has the authoritative right to determine what is in the common good and what is not, even trumping natural law rights?

    Where does the Church say the natural law right to unionize can be dispensed with when the State, who is also the employer, says so?

    Workers do have responsibilities as well as rights. But nothing in CST says that when the employer can justly deny workers their rights when the employer determines they have not fullfilled some standard of responsible action.

    Neither workers nor bosses, only the Blessed Mother, is without sin. The reality of that sinful nature we all share does not take away the right to form unions.

    • Omar Gutierrez

      Katherine, 1) I don’t say that the State has the right to “determine what is in the common good.” What I wrote was that the State is in charge of maintaining the common good. This maintenance can be determinative but it not completely determinative since the common good involves no only laws but also cultural realities over which the State has no real control. Pope Leo XIII, Pius XI, and John XXIII make it very clear that the reason for the State’s existence is the maintenance of the common good. 2) As for where the Church says that natural law rights can be dispensed with, I gave you two examples in the realm of private property (hello taxes) and in the realm of religious liberty (no you may not sacrifice that goat in the middle of central park). More specifically, Leo XIII states explicitly in Rerum Novarum that when a union undermines the common good, the State has the obligation to step in. Granted the Holy Father says that the intervention must be delicate and careful not to over reach its bounds, but the precedent is there. 3) CST does not say that the employer can do away with the worker’s rights. But it does say that the State can. Which is why this is a particularly prickly problem. Indeed, this is the very reason why FDR fought against public sector unions. The State is not a real employer since the employer – i.e. the people of Wisconsin – have no direct control over the business. They depend on representatives. Representatives who are paid by the unions to do their bidding. 4) Of course, that unions are full of sinners doesn’t mean that they have to give up their rights. But it does mean that just because they are a union does not mean they are beyond reproach. Lastly, if the right to unionize is an absolute right, then it would be the only such right recognized by CST. Not even the right to life is absolute since CST allows for the possibility of capital punishment in cases where the State cannot protect itself otherwise. I hope this helps.

  • Robert Nickels

    It amazes me to see how far some Catholics have drifted away from facing the truth. Jesus would condemn all this political rhetoric. I was raised in a devout Catholic family, one of five children. My mother taught me to be kind and loving. This is a message that seems to have gotten lost in the catacombs. Politics should not be coming from the pulpit, that should be reserved for messages of hope , faith and spirit. The Church needs to face it’s many demons, instead of demonizing gays, contraception, and of course anyone who doesn’t live by the church’s severe dogma. Just a recomendation to my Catholic friends, try going to a service in a loving church such as Unity or Center for Spiritual Living,don’t worry , it’s not a mortal sin to expand your awareness. Notice how these congregations practice unconditional love and support. The messages you hear at loving churches might very well remind you of the Catholic Church of yesteryear. Getting swallowed up by politics and not facing the truth tends to distract good Christians from practicing the golden rule and living Christ’s truth, which is all about love, not about divide and conquer. It is very sad to see my former church , which was so sacred, fall into the abyss of self cherishing and self grasping. [OUR CHURCH IS THE ONLY WAY, IF YOU ARE NOT A CATHOLIC, YOU WILL NOT BE SAVED} There can never be a happy ending resulting from an unhappy journey.

    • Steve M

      Robert – you should come on down to our parish. Very loving and faithful. Our priest takes his responsibilities very seriously. One key thing he tries to do is teach us the Truth so we do not damage our souls through sin that we don’t recognize because we have listened to the world to much. I am very sorry that you have not had loving experiences as well. We used to attend a Catholic Church where the priest focused on making sure no one felt bad. Anything we did that seemed to us a good thing was okay just so we didn’t ever feel bad. It was a very un-loving place. HE wanted to be liked in this world and not help us be the creatures that God made us to be. It is especially sad to see your last comment. I have had some terribly unhappy moments in my life that made me a better person. Someday I will tell you about my mother-in-law passing away as she received the Sacrament of Annointing from our priest and truly passing in peace. Doesn’t fit your post and point you try to make so I am sorry about that. I will definitely say a pray for you to experience Love like I have in our parish.

    • Danielle

      “There can never be a happy ending resulting from an unhappy journey.”

      I don’t know about that rather dogmatic statement. I would say my kids are happy endings to unhappy journeys. So is my marriage. For that matter, so is being able to pay our mortgage and power bill at the end of the month.

      Yeah, been to some of those lovey-dovey services. Love seems rather absent, more like excessive tolerance. And where are the children??? Contracepted? Aborted? Raised with zero standards so why bother showing up? No example of sacrifice for the common good? The little old ladies, who were wonderfully nice people, spent the entire time wishing they had some children in their congregation. But the few they had grew up and walked away.

    • Will

      “There can never be a happy ending resulting from an unhappy journey.”

      Jesus Christ won redemption for humanity by suffering a brutal passion and death, surely an unhappy journey.



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