Acton Institute Powerblog

Sinning Against the Union

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“Catholic scholars say those who thwart labor unions commit mortal sin,” says the headline from Catholic News Service.

It’s an accurate characterization of a statement released by a group called Catholic Scholars for Worker Justice. (You can read the statement in full at the organization’s web site.) It’s certainly attention-grabbing, but is it sound moral analysis?

The answer is no. I’m not trained as a moral theologian, but I do know something about Catholic social teaching and I can apply elementary rules of logic, which is all I need to poke some holes in the statement in question.

Now the statement should not be dismissed as nonsense. It builds on material gleaned from genuine sources of CST such as the Compendium of the Social Doctrine and the Catechism of the Catholic Church. It rightly notes that the social teaching declares that unions are “a positive influence for social order and solidarity, and are therefore an indispensible element of social life.” It rightly notes that CST insists on the right of workers to organize, as a corollary of the right of voluntary association.

But the statement engages in some slippery reasoning and ambiguous language to get from there to its conclusions. “Union busting is a mortal sin,” it declares; and union busting “refers to the action of any person who seeks to prevent employees from forming a labor union, or who attempts to undermine or destroy an existing union.”

So, any person, anywhere, at anytime, who, for any reason, seeks to prevent the formation of a union or seeks to “undermine” an existing union is committing sin? (I’m leaving aside the issue of mortal vs. venial sin for the sake of simplicity.)

This is a pretty sloppy application of Catholic social teaching.

The documents of CST do not simply endorse unions, without qualification. Indeed, CST condemns unions under certain conditions: such as those that serve private interest rather than the common good or those that by their stated or implicit aims attack the Church or Church teaching. For a time, CST even discouraged Catholics from joining unions that did not have an explicitly Catholic character. The point is that CST leaves it as a matter of conscience as to whether any one, specific union ought to be joined/supported/endorsed. Blanket prohibitions and obligations are out of place on this issue.

Not only is it theoretically possible that individuals–whether employers, employees, or other parties–might have an obligation to oppose (or “undermine”) union activity, one might easily cite cases. During the Cold War era, many labor priests and Catholic trade unionists–who were stridently “pro-labor” as a general rule–in some instances worked actively to destroy unions that were under the control of Communists. In a more contemporary example, Catholics have joined with other people of good will to “undermine” various unions by withholding dues that would otherwise fund activity to which the individual workers are in conscience opposed (such as supporting pro-abortion political candidates).

I suspect–though I don’t know–that the CSWJ folks would want to permit these sorts of exceptions, but their statement as written does not. To push the point a little further, I would argue that a Catholic employer may well be permitted to oppose the formation of a union in his or her company, if the formation of that union is deemed to be detrimental to the common good (meaning the good of the workers, the company, and society). The employer must in all cases respect the right of the workers to organize, and must never use immoral or illegal means to oppose a union, but an absolute moral prohibition on employers engaging in information-provision or non-coercive forms of persuasion seems unjustified.

The CSWJ statement could have been a helpful document by thoughtfully addressing the question of what criteria should be used to determine when or when not to support labor organizing. Instead, it engages in simplistic moral analysis that will be useful primarily as a stick to beat anyone who might challenge the practices, utility, or character of any given union.

Kevin Schmiesing Kevin Schmiesing, Ph.D., is a research fellow for the research department at the Acton Institute. He is a frequent writer on Catholic social thought and economics, is the author of American Catholic Intellectuals, 1895-1955 (Edwin Mellen Press, 2002) and is most recently the author of Within the Market Strife: American Catholic Economic Thought from Rerum Novarum to Vatican II (Lexington Books, 2004). Dr. Schmiesing holds a Ph.D. in American history from the University of Pennsylvania, and a B.A. in history from Franciscan University ofSteubenville. Author of Within the Market Strife and American Catholic Intellectuals, 1895—1955 (2002), he serves as Book Review Editor for the Journal of Markets & Morality. He is also executive director of CatholicHistory.net.

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