Dear Friends and Readers,
I am continuing my extended biweekly treatment of Catholic Social Teaching (CST) with a series on Humanizing Work.
Sue, a married woman in her late 50s with adult children, is a longtime employee of the John Deere company and a member of the United Auto Workers union. After long and unsuccessful negotiations, she voted with 99% of her 10,000-member union to go on strike October 14, 2021, for higher pay and better benefits. She wanted to be in solidarity with younger employees seeking to preserve a pension option and she believed a substantial pay increase was overdue, especially since Deere anticipated a record annual profit of over $5.7 billion. During the strike, Sue took her turn walking the picket line in increasingly cold weather, while trying to get by on the union’s $275 weekly strike pay and limited medical insurance. She was very grateful for the assistance provided by UAW locals around the country and by local businesses who provided free food and goods. When union and company negotiators reached an agreement on November 18, 2021, providing a 10% pay raise and other benefits, Sue felt the sacrifices she made were well worth it.
Labor unions in the United States have a long history of improving the wages and benefits of American workers. The American Federation of Labor founded in 1886 and led by Samuel Gompers until his death in 1924 played a major role in coordinating strikes to benefit workers. The Wagner Act, signed into law in 1935, established the legal right of most workers to organize and join unions, which could bargain collectively and initiate strikes. That same year, the two largest unions the AFL and CIO merged, representing about 35% of American workers. Since then, unions have lost membership and now represent only about 11% of the labor force.
Ever since Pope Leo XIII’s 1891 groundbreaking encyclical Rerum novarum, Catholic Social Teaching has consistently supported labor unions. For example, in his important encyclical, Laborem exercens, Pope John Paul II insists that labor unions are an “indispensable element” of modern societies and the struggle for social justice (n20). In their 1986 Pastoral Letter, “Economic Justice for All,” the American bishops taught that our changing economy “requires a strong role for labor unions,” to insure the rights of workers through “collective negotiation” (n303).
The Compendium of the Social Doctrine of the Church, first published by the Vatican in 2005, recognizes the important role of unions in defending the vital interests of workers and promoting the struggle for social justice and in working for the proper arrangement of economic life (n306-307). In pursuit of these goals, labor unions have the historically hard- earned right to strike, a “collective and concentrated refusal on the part of workers to continue to render their services” (n304). Strikes are legitimate under certain conditions: when they seek a “proportionate benefit” for example, better working conditions and a more just wage; when they are the last resort after all other methods have been ineffective; and when they are conducted by peaceful methods and violence is avoided.
The American bishops, who have historically provided strong support for the labor movement, have also insisted that unions have proper duties and responsibilities. For example, their pastoral letter Economic Justice for All insists that union leaders have the responsibility to preserve the good name of the union movement. Unions should present demands that serve the common good and do not harm the rights of more vulnerable members of society. They should exercise leadership in the struggle against racial and sexual discrimination that has blotted the record of some unions and should provide education and training to keep workers employable (n106). In general, Catholic Social Teaching has consistently supported the labor movement while offering moral guidance on how unions can contribute to the common good.
What part of Sue’s story is most impressive to me and how does it exemplify Catholic Social Teaching?
About the Author
Fr. James J. Bacik has served as a priest of the Diocese of Toledo since his ordination in 1962. He is a widely regarded theologian, writer, lecturer and pastor who served as campus minister and adjunct professor of humanities at the University of Toledo for more than 30 years. Fr. Bacik is an AUSCP member. Visit his website at frjimbacik.org.