The Catholic Herald, the official newspaper of the Diocese of Madison, Wis., recently published a column by Dr. Constance Nielsen on the principles held by the Catholic Church concerning unions.  Dr. Nielsen provides a very insightful outlook on how Catholics can view the current debate occurring in Wisconsin over union rights:

In this context it is good to recall John Paul’s warning against too strong of a connection between the work of Unions and the political arena. Though Unions enter into politics, understood as “the pursuit of the common good,” they are not meant to engage in the struggle for the power of political parties, nor have too close of a tie with any political party. In such a case, “they easily lose contact with their specific role, which is to secure the just rights of workers within the framework of the common good of the whole of society; instead they become an instrument used for other purposes” (LE 20, emphasis in the original).

Again, the Pope primarily has the private sector in mind. Unions are actually meant to resolve economic issues in order to avoid undue intervention of the State, not to increase it (see RN 45 and CA 48). But his comments are even more pertinent for public sector unions where fiscal power, in the form of campaign contributions, could be wielded by the Unions in order to effectively choose their own bargaining partner. This has the potential for creating a relationship of mutual self-interest, leaving those outside of the arrangement marginalized and voiceless, but still paying for it. Such a condition actually poses a greater threat of excessive State involvement, which it is the very purpose of Unions to help avoid.

But however the secular media might portray the unrest in Wisconsin, as “taxpayers vs. public workers” or “liberals vs. conservatives,” an authentically Catholic view of society would not frame it this way. What is most salient for the Catholic perspective is John Paul’s corrective that the conflict ought not, in fact, be understood as a power-struggle. The struggle, he writes, should always be aimed towards achieving justice; it should never be seen as a struggle against other people (LE 20). In other words, both sides of any labor disagreement ought to be working for justice and the common good, rather than to achieve their own personal victory.

More can be found on Dr. Nielsen’s commentary on the Catholic Herald’s website.


  • Chuck Serio

    “In other words, both sides of any labor disagreement ought to be working for justice and the common good, rather than to achieve their own personal victory.”

    In my view, the most obvious common good in this case is the fiscal solvency of the state government. State and local governments provide the essential services of our civil society. The taxpayers’ efforts, through their elected representatives, are seeking justice and the common good. The terrible behavior of the union operatives suggests to me that their argument is not only weak but also immoral.