As state legislatures across the nation have opened for their 2015 sessions, some (such as Wisconsin and West Virginia) are debating so-called "right-to-work" laws. These laws do not, of course, give anyone a right to a job. Rather, they create a special "right" for workers to refuse union membership even after a majority of their co-workers have voted to form a union. This creates a perverse incentive: any individual worker can enjoy all the benefits of union contracts while shirking dues. If too many take this option, though, the union and its benefits cease to exist—what social scientists call the "free rider" problem. Unions strongly oppose these laws, for obvious reasons. So do I. They promote individual rights over values both Christian (solidarity) and small-d democratic (majority rule).
Laws protecting labor rights vary widely among the nations of the world; Catholic social teaching does not take an express position on "right to work" laws. What a century of papal social encyclicals DO expressly favor, however, is the growth and increase of unions and workers' associations. When Pope Leo XIII wrote his elegant "Rerum Novarum" (1891), the foundational text of Catholic social thought in the modern age, he worried that the modern economy too often allowed the rich and powerful an opportunity to exploit working people. He took consolation in the multiplication of "workingmen's unions" that helped ameliorate the condition of labor. "There are not a few associations of this nature," the pope observed, "but it were greatly to be desired that they should become more numerous and more efficient."
Catholic critics of labor unions have tried to advance the notion that unions were needed in Leo's time but not so much today. Unfortunately for their cause, Pope Benedict XVI directly rejected this position in his social encyclical "Caritas in Veritate." "The repeated calls issued within the Church's social doctrine, beginning with Rerum Novarum, for the promotion of workers' associations that can defend their rights must therefore be honored today even more than in the past," the Holy Father observed.
It seems clear that the "right-to-work" laws under consideration in Wisconsin and various state legislatures will not make "workingmen's unions... become more numerous," nor are they consistent with a desire for the "promotion of workers' associations... even more than in the past." Unless they are prepared to offer an alternative method to achieve these ends, it is hard to see how Catholics who respect the message of "Rerum Novarum" and "Caritas in Veritate" can support these right-to-work initiatives.