What Does Catholic Social Teaching Say About "Right-to-work" Laws?

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."   

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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.

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Martin Eble
2 years 7 months ago
Generally in the 26 states that have right-to-work laws, workers may refuse union membership but cannot “enjoy all the benefits of union contracts while shirking dues”. Instead they contribute something towards the collective bargaining component of the union without having to contribute to a union’s support of pro-abortion and at times anti-Catholic political candidates, or the other “union activities” which are unrelated to the protection of workers. Catholic social teaching does not take an express position on "right to work" laws because the Church is against coercion of any kind, including coercion by unions, which may be corrupt, linked to organized crime, or advocates for programs which Catholics cannot in conscience support. Of course these abuses had not yet exhibited in 1891 when "Rerum Novarum" was written, which is why Catholic teaching involves principles, not detailed courses of action. Implementing the principles is the work of laypersons who live in the world. Obviously unions that do their job and steer clear of involving themselves in matters not directly related to representing workers with management are more likely to “become more numerous", even in right-to-work states. Of course, this would require that union leaders give up their political aspirations and clout and focus on the workers and their welfare. .
Jerry C
2 years 7 months ago
Well said, thank you!
CLAYTON SINYAI
2 years 7 months ago

It sounds like there is a bit of confusion here. This is not surprising, because our labor law system has become quite complicated through years of partisan conflict, while fewer and fewer people are labor union members with firsthand experience of the issues.

Workers in right-to-work states enjoy the benefits of collective bargaining and do not generally have to pay dues or fees of any sort. Martin, it sounds like what you are describing are what are known as "Beck rights," which apply to every private sector union member represented by a union, whether in a right-to-work state or not.

Every private sector worker in the United States who is represented by a union, and is unhappy with the political advocacy pursued by its elected leadership, has the right to decline union membership and to retain the portion of his or her union dues used for political advocacy. That worker may still be assessed a fee covering the cost of collective bargaining services, representation in disciplinary proceedings, and the like, if such a provision is included in the contract. These are known as "Beck Rights" because they were established in a 1988 Supreme Court ruling, CWA v. Beck. The American Federation of Musicians explains Beck Rights here.

Public employees are covered by a variety of different statutes covering collective bargaining. Many employ a similar arrangement in which new hires can elect to pay lesser "agency fees" covering the cost of representation if they wish to decline union membership and full union dues.

The Church does not teach that unions (or any human institutions) are without stain, but Church teaching clearly places a high value on “workingmen’s unions.” Martin, if you are represented by a union that you believe “is corrupt, linked to organized crime, or advocates for programs which Catholics cannot in conscience support,” I hope that rather than walking away you will take action to change it by organizing with your union brothers and sisters, speaking out at union meetings, and even running for union office.

Martin Eble
2 years 7 months ago
Clayton, it sounds like what you are in the employ of labor unions, interested in furthering unions rather than the application of Catholic principles to labor-management issues. Every private sector worker in the United States includes all the private sector workers in right-to-work states, who you now admit may still be assessed a fee covering the cost of collective bargaining services. What the Church clearly places a high value on is a lack of coercion, and that includes coercion by unions. Right-to-work is about reducing coercion.
Jerry C
2 years 7 months ago
Thank you Marten, you explained it perfectly, it's just what my reply would be to the article.

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