‘Right to work’

People are nervous about the economy — and every indicator suggests that they have reason to be. No end seems to be in sight. 

We are uneasily moving through a period in which economic decision-making is definitely needed, but finding answers is complicated by the fact that we are all, to some degree, afraid, and the complexity of issues further obstructs the path to any sure opinion of how best to recover economic robustness for this country. 

The Church has been clear for well over a century about the moral principles that should prevail when it comes to setting public policy regarding commerce and production. 

Maybe because, generally speaking, times were good for the majority of Americans for a long time, checks and balances on economic practices were presumed to be in place. Since Catholics have dramatically ascended the ladder of well-being in America since the Second World War, little has been said for years in pulpits, or in other Catholic comment, about morality as it pertains to business. New issues, such as abortion, have created new alliances. And, very often, we are not as informed as were our Catholic grandparents on the subject of morality and economics. It adds to the confusion. 

For example, so-called “right to work” laws are being argued in many states. Where does the Church stand? 

Discussions in Catholic circles about the “right to work” have never been without disagreement. Still, to be frank, any reading of these discussions among Catholic bishops and academics in the past shows that, more often than not, the pendulum shifted away from approving “right to work” than to approval on moral grounds. 

Why? The basic intention behind these laws creates the moral context. The basic moral principle for Catholics is that enunciated by Pope Leo XIII in his landmark encyclical, Rerum Novarum, in 1891. Labor unions were just coming into their own. Rarely were they universally welcomed. 

The pope said, “To enter into a trade union is a natural right of man … ” (No. 51). He endorsed collective bargaining as a chief reason for unions. Blessed Pope John Paul II, in 1991’s Centesimus Annus,declared just as firmly that no worker can be forced into a union. 

Joining, or not joining unions, or paying dues, is not the end of the discussion. Catholics must face the fact that the economic system active in our country is not in keeping in every respect with Catholic teaching. Our system has concentrated upon capital investment and profit for investors. It is part of the American way of life. 

Always respecting the right to own and use property, the Church also vigorously insists that others too are critically important in achieving prosperity, such as workers. Workers have rights to just wages, benefits and conditions. 

Over history, millions have achieved many of these better circumstances. In fact, many of these benefits Americans now take for granted. Historically, collective bargaining won them. Employers did not spontaneously grant them. 

All along, many saw “right to work” policies as a device not to free workers but to weaken the force of collective bargaining. 

If any “right to work” proposal has this as an ultimate objective, or even a possible result, then a moral problem exists. 

By the same token, no organization can use workers or collective bargaining to advance some other agenda. Unions are human organizations open to human limitations. If ineffective or corrupt, unions should be reformed. 

Stakes are high. Catholics must learn relevant Catholic principles. Our national nervousness is considerable. Church teaching is sound. 

Msgr. Owen F. Campion is OSV’s associate publisher.