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How does Catholic social teaching apply to public unions?

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Last week the Supreme Court ruled in the case of Janus v. AFSCME that government employees who are represented by a public sector union to which they do not belong cannot be required to pay a fee to cover the costs of collective bargaining. The ruling overturned a forty-year-old precedent first set in Abood v. Detroit Board of Education that allows government agencies to mandate union dues or agency fees as a condition of employment.

Catholic social teaching has a lot to say about labor unions. So how does this decision relate to that teaching?

Commenting on the case, Acton president and co-founder Rev. Robert Sirico said the ruling was the only correct one and that the decision “doesn’t repudiate Catholic social teaching in the least.” 

Michael Moreland, a professor of law and religion at Villanova University, wonders if public sector unions pose distinctive issues from the concerns that ground the Catholic social tradition’s support for unions:

One of the consistent themes in the arguments for the outcome in Janus is that agency shop arrangements in the public sector are meaningfully different than such arrangements in the private sector. The “management” on the other side of the bargaining table in public employment is the state whose leaders are the subject of lobbying and political support from…the public employee union. Rerum Novarum and the ensuing line of Catholic teaching on unionization were primarily addressed to the urgent necessity of unions for trade workers in the private sector. In light of the rise of wage labor amid industrialization, Leo XIII focused on the problem of commutative justice and how the formation of workers’ associations would be ordered to the common good.

That does not entail, of course, that Catholic social teaching is irrelevant to public sector unions—but the more fruitful conversation, I think, would be somewhere in between the view that CST on unions applies simply and conterminously between public and private sector unions and the view that CST has nothing to do at all with public employee unions. Do the principles of CST supporting the rights of workers to organize apply with full or modified force in the public sector union context? There is a long scholarly literature about public sector bargaining that highlights the inelastic demand for services and bargaining power of public employee unions, with important policy and economic consequences. To my knowledge, Catholic social teaching has not engaged with that literature.

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Joe Carter Joe Carter is a Senior Editor at the Acton Institute. Joe also serves as an editor at the The Gospel Coalition, a communications specialist for the Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission of the Southern Baptist Convention, and as an adjunct professor of journalism at Patrick Henry College. He is the editor of the NIV Lifehacks Bible and co-author of How to Argue like Jesus: Learning Persuasion from History's Greatest Communicator (Crossway).

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