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


  • Melissa

    I find this posting very interested, I agree with this paragraph:
    “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.”
    If they would have given some context about their comment it would have saved them a lot of explaining, which I assume they have done. This statement does strike me as odd, but I’m sure there was some instance that sparked such comment.
    Whatever, the case, in any situation of making broad faith statements, it would be helpful for their followers to know where their statements are rooted and coming from.

  • Patrick Powers

    Screwtape character’s Keynote Address at the graduation of novice temptors to puts a union organizer in hell for his efforts to destroy the uniqueness of the human individual in the name of democracy. I also recommend a review of the Acton book “Liberating Labor” by Charles W. Baird for a more complete discussion of Catholic and Labor issues.
    The membership composition of labor has changed. Fewer private sector employees are opting for labor organizations, while government employees now make up the majority of labors’ membership. The opportunities for mischief is almost unlimited when management and labor are unaccountable to free market customers.
    I wonder if we won’t see Worker Justice join the Progressive labels of Social Justice and Environmental Justice.

  • Michael

    Labor unions don’t unify. They drive a wedge between employees and a company. Think about it. Why isn’t the union between employees and the company good enough? It used to be before labor unions came along.

    Before unions, both company and employee entered into doing business together freely, exchanging time and work for payment. Both were FREE to form a union and FREE to disband it. The employee can leave at any time if he is unsatisfied. This REAL and FREE union between employee and company ended when labor unions came on the scene.

    Union takes your money. Union tells you when to work and when to strike. Why do employees picket a company that wrongs them? They always claim it’s about money, but ironically they don’t want you patronizing the company. But won’t the business help pay for their precious salaries and benefits? When customers patronize a company, they have more money to pay dissatisfied employees.

    But union employees don’t trust the company, they trust their union. After all, you only enter into a union with someone you trust. They’re convinced companies really have enough money to pay them, but they’re not because they enjoy being picketed. It’s somehow good for business and their bottom line? See how twisted this logic is?

    And if the employees think their salaries are no longer fair, why do they still work at the company? If your time and service is really worth more, if you’re really being underpaid, then there should be a demand for you elsewhere in the market. Why not really stick it to the evil, stingy company and relieve them of your precious employment? Why not have all the striking employees abandon the company and leave them high and dry and forced to hire new employees who cost them less and are crappier workers? Wouldn’t that really punish them for being so stingy and greedy with their unpaid wages?

    Because it’s not about logic with these people. Because to labor unions and all socialist minded people, it’s not about freedom to work where you want, for whom you want, because they hate freedom. They don’t want the freedom to be loyal to a company where the company and the employees both trust each other and are free to leave at any time when want.

    These people don’t want to form a union based on freedom. They want to be chained to a job, not there of their own will. They want to form a union based on totalitarian slavery. You must pay your dues. You cannot leave the company to find your true worth. We, the glorious and all-knowing labor union will tell you when to work, when to strike, how much you should earn, and don’t think about leaving; you should be afraid to make a move.

    You must drag the company down if need be. In fact, the company is the enemy. Trust the labor bosses, don’t trust the company bosses. You know, the people with which you originally entered into an employment union FREELY. You know, the people who offered you a paid position, not the people extracting dues from you. You should trust someone who’s holding a gun to your head, telling you that you have to work here. Companies can’t keep you from quitting.

    Social justice, pro-labor, worker justice, liberal, progressive, etc. etc. etc. It’s all tyranny masked in compassion. Just like sin, and just like Satan. It’s evil, it will never survive, not on a big scale like the former USSR, not on a small scale like the states of NY, CA, pick one. Not as labor unions or anywhere else there is some bully telling you who to trust and what your life is worth.

    Socialists will continue to try to hide in politics, the catholic church, anywhere they can hide and begin acting like they care about people while they size them up for the slaughter.

  • BAW

    “And if the employees think their salaries are no longer fair, why do they still work at the company?”

    Perhaps because they have no choice. Perhaps there are no other employers in the area for people with their skill set and they are unable to move away.

    Sometimes it isn’t about money, as things like working conditions (health and safety), or unfair promotion/retention policies, or a variety of other matters.

  • Patrick Powers: what is your proposed solution – criminalising organised labour? Carting union members to prison? If so, how long for? Would you apply similar sanctions against business associations?

    I am not a trade unionist or a socialist, but I can not write off whole swathes of humanity as agents of the Devil simply because they think a labour union may have some merit. That would hardly square with Christ’s injunction not to judge other people. If trade unions are monolithic and megalomanical, is that not in part because big business is just the same? The proposition that we are “all in it together” may work in the small business environment. At the level of multi-nationals, which shut down and outsource with gay abandon, this is plain risible.

  • Patrick Powers

    Conversion, rather than criminalization, is best response to most evils in our culture. C. S. Lewis’ main point in the citation above is that dumbing down of the society to achieve equality is destroying our souls. For example, I went to a dinner hosted by a local convent as a fund raiser. Since the National election was coming, I asked who they planned to vote for. They said they were voting for the Democrat candidate because he was pro-union. I said the democrat favored abortion. To them the protection of life was unimportant. . .their Faith does not influence their political behavior.
    If American firms can afford to outsource to foreign countries, that may well be one of the unintended consequences of our unionized educational system. I recall reading an article where an executive of a large communications company lamented outsourcing thousands of jobs to India, because they couldn’t find or attract qualified domestic labor. As a Californian, I am proud to say that our state has more Nobel scientists than any other, as an American I am distressed to admit most of those scientists are not native Americans.

  • I watched the video linked below and missed any reference to the “common good” or “because we care about our children.” I did hear something about raw power, which seems to be the motive force behind this labor organization.

    NEA General Counsel Bob Chanin Says Farewell.

    HT: TheFoundryBlog