Catholics back unions after court decision

The U.S. Supreme Court’s decision in the Hobby Lobby case overshadowed another ruling the court issued the same day, one Catholic legal scholars and activists fear might undermine the ability of public-sector unions to collectively bargain.

On June 30, the high court ruled 5-4 that home health care workers in Illinois could not be compelled to pay union dues because that requirement under Illinois state law violated the workers’ free speech rights.

The ruling in Harris v. Quinn is limited in the sense that Justice Samuel Alito, who wrote the majority opinion, said the workers are not full-time public employees since they also worked for individuals in private homes.

However, Alito may have created an opening for a wider challenge to the Supreme Court’s precedent in the 1977 Abood v. Detroit Board of Education ruling, a case in which the high court said public sector unions could require nonmembers to pay fees to cover the costs of the union’s representation and collective bargaining.

The Abood ruling said unions could not force employees to pay for political activities they opposed.

Alito referred to the Abood ruling as “something of an anomaly” and questionable on several grounds. He also wrote that a union’s status as the certified bargaining agent and the right to collect an agency fee from nonmembers “are not inextricably linked.”

The National Right to Work Foundation, which brought the lawsuit to trial, said the decision was a “landmark ruling” that renders similar arrangements in other states to be unconstitutional.

Decision’s effect

The possibility that Harris v. Quinn could be applied across the country concerns Catholic legal scholars such as Joseph J. Fahey, the director of labor studies at Manhattan College in New York.

“This could weaken, even destroy unions,” Fahey told Our Sunday Visitor. Fahey, who is also chairman of Catholic Scholars for Worker Justice, said the Supreme Court majority “is obviously anti-labor,” and it has invited lawsuits to overturn the basic rights of public-sector unions to represent and collectively bargain on behalf of public workers that include police, firefighters, teachers and administrative personnel.

“People may have a right not to join a union, but if you’re going to enjoy the benefits of something, then you should pay part of the costs,” Fahey said.

When a private or public workplace unionizes, the union, under established federal law, becomes the exclusive bargaining agent with management.

The union is then tasked with representing the interests of all workers, even those who refuse to join the union and pay membership dues.

For several decades, nonunion members have been expected to pay an agency fee to contribute their “fair share” of the union’s activities. However, the growing “right to work” movement, which has been successful in passing similar laws in 24 states, argues that workers should not be forced to pay union dues or agency fees just because they work in a union shop.

The agency fee is supposed to deal with the problem of “free riders,” or nonunion workers who reap the benefits of collective bargaining without paying for the related expenses. 

The National Right to Work Committee says on its website that compulsory unionism in any form is “a contradiction of the right-to-work principle and the fundamental human right that the principle represents.” The National Right to Work Committee also says it advocates that “every individual must have the right, but must not be compelled, to join a labor union.”


Fahey and like-minded Catholic legal scholars argue that the Catholic social teaching principle of solidarity poses a responsibility on workers to pay for a labor union’s expenses to represent their interests at the bargaining table.


“If you don’t want to pay dues, but you want the benefits, that just doesn’t follow,” said Sister Monica McGloin, a Dominican Sister of Hope who is also a member of the Cincinnati Interfaith Committee for Worker Justice. Sister Monica said right-to-work laws are attempts to undermine and bust unions.

“The right-to-work movement tries to paint unions as an outside group, an enemy, as opposed to the union being the people who belong to the union,” Sister Monica said.

In the Harris v. Quinn decision, the National Right to Work Foundation issued a news release quoting the lead plaintiff, Pam Harris, who said Illinois families can now relax that there will be “no third party intruding into the care we provide our disabled sons and daughters.”

Catholic social teaching, going back to Pope Leo XIII’s landmark 1891 encyclical Rerum Novarum (on capital and labor) has affirmed labor unions as indispensable to protecting workers’ rights, guaranteeing their freedom to associate and fostering solidarity and subsidiarity.

Pope St. John Paul II also supported unions in Laborem Exercens (on human work) in 1981 and Centesimus Annus (“The Hundredth Year”) in 1991.

Pope Benedict XVI, in his 2009 social encyclical Caritas in Veritate (“Charity in Truth”), wrote that “the promotion of workers’ associations that can defend (workers’) rights” had to be “honored today even more than in the past.”

In those and other documents, the popes and bishops have said that unions have a responsibility to serve the common good of society, not just the interests of their workers.

Sharing the cost

Catholic social teaching on unions also recognizes that human beings are social and have obligations to one another, said Joseph Holland, a philosophy and religion professor at St. Thomas University in Maple Gardens, Florida.

“Catholic social teaching is a fundamental rejection of both right-wing [conservative] and left-wing liberal assumptions that the human person is autonomous. They are both in fundamental error from the viewpoint of natural law,” Holland told OSV. 


Joseph A. McCartin, associate professor of history and director of the Kalmanovitz Initiative for Labor and the Working Poor at Georgetown University in Washington, D.C., suggested that the Supreme Court ruling “erodes the very concept of collective bargaining” in a way that runs counter to Catholic social teaching.

“The predominant view has always been that it is a very Catholic idea to believe everyone shares the costs of work undertaken on their behalf,” McCartin told OSV.

Clayton Sinyai, a board member of the Catholic Labor Network, told OSV that the employer-worker relationship examined in Harris v. Quinn is a good example of what Harvard professor David Weil and others have called “fissuring.”

Because of outsourcing, subcontracting and other modern employment arrangements, workers often no longer have one employer with whom to bargain under current legal structures.

If previous collective bargaining structures are becoming outdated or nullified by the courts, and taking seriously the Catholic social teaching on unions, then Sinyai said that “as Catholics, we are bound to seek other models to accomplish these ends.”

Brian Fraga writes from Massachusetts.