The growing labor protests in several states have prompted the nation’s Catholic bishops to reaffirm the rights of workers to organize and collectively bargain, though some suggest the bishops’ public statements have been muted compared with their predecessors’ overt support of unions. 

Also apparent is a new diversity in emphasis among Church leaders in the support of labor rights, owing to complexity in labor law and arrangements that were unheard of just decades ago. 

The proving ground has been Wisconsin, where Republican Gov. Scott Walker’s plan to strip collective bargaining from the state’s public-sector unions sparked a fierce backlash from organized labor. 

On Feb. 16, Milwaukee Archbishop Jerome E. Listecki released a statement  on behalf of the Wisconsin Catholic Conference, quoting Popes John Paul II and Benedict XVI in saying that difficult economic times “do not nullify the moral obligation each of us has to respect the legitimate rights of workers,” and adding that it would be a mistake to dismiss unions simply as impediments to economic growth. 

‘Neutral stance’? 

However, a week later, Bishop Robert Morlino of Madison, Wis., said the state’s bishops were taking a “neutral stance.” In his diocesan newspaper, Bishop Morlino quoted passages from Pope John Paul’s encyclical Laborem Exercens in which the late pontiff said unions must consider a country’s economic circumstances and avoid close ties with political parties. 

“It seems to me that [Bishop] Morlino is taking a position of neutrality on the question of collective bargaining, which has not been the majority view of the Church over time,” said Joseph A. McCartin, an associate professor of history and director of the Kalmanovitz Initiative for Labor and the Working Poor at Georgetown University. 

“[Bishop] Morlino’s statement, I think, is typical these days,” said James T. Fisher, a theology professor at Fordham University. “The labor and social justice issues are seen as second- or third-tier Catholic issues at best. In my view, it’s a shame.” 

However, other Catholic labor scholars say Archbishop Listeki’s comments, as well as recent statements from the Catholic Conference of Ohio and the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, unequivocally defend workers’ rights. 

“The bishops’ role is to give moral guidance on this issue, and I think they’ve done it. I don’t think there is any neutrality there,” said Joseph J. Fahey, a professor of religious studies at Manhattan College in New York. 

Changing demographics 

Fahey, a co-founder and chairman of Catholic Scholars for Worker Justice, said, however, that he would have liked to have seen more “overt support” from Church leaders and lay Catholics. Fahey and other observers believe many Catholics, including the clergy, have lost sight of labor issues. 

“There is simply not a lot of pro-labor, pro-union activity today,” Fahey said. “Many Catholics are upper-middle class now. Back in the ’50s, you had blue-collar Catholics in unions. Today, the membership is way down.” 

The observation was seconded by Steve Rosswurm, a history professor at Lake Forest College in Illinois. “Has the hierarchy been encouraging labor priests like it did from the 1930s to the 1960s? There I think the answer is no,” he said. 

“It is not a Church of factory workers anymore,” he added. 

Nevertheless, John Carr, executive director of the Department of Justice, Peace and Human Development for the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, said today’s bishops have maintained the Church’s “consistent themes” of social justice and labor rights first articulated by Pope Leo XIII in his landmark encyclical Rerum Novarum in 1891. 

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

“The bishops in Wisconsin are not neutral on the rights of workers. They are not taking a position on the specifics of the legislation, which is understandable given that there are many elements to it,” Carr told OSV, adding that bishops are not meant to be activists. He said Catholic lawmakers and union leaders have primary roles in the debate. 

“The proper role of the bishops [is] to teach what the Church says on the rights of workers and to be pastors to their people,” Carr said. 

Siding with workers 

Bishop Stephen E. Blaire of Stockton, Calif., who is the chairman of the USCCB’s Committee on Domestic Justice and Human Development, expressed his solidarity with Archbishop Listeki and the Wisconsin Catholic Conference. In a Feb. 24 statement, Bishop Blaire said the debates over collective bargaining were not matters of ideology or power, but involved “principles of justice” and how workers can “have a voice in the workplace and economy.” 

“I believe they’re taking the side of the workers,” said Bishop Gabino Zavala, an auxiliary bishop for the Archdiocese of Los Angeles who is also the chairman of the board of directors for Interfaith Worker Justice, an Illinois-based alliance of religious leaders dedicated to advocating for workers. 

“That is not neutral from my perspective,” he said. 

Bishop Zavala said that Gov. Walker’s proposal to curtail collective-bargaining rights in the interest of closing a yawning state budget deficit amounted to an “assault on the rights of workers.” 

“These are tough economic times. The workers are willing to sacrifice, but what is being asked of them is just not right,” Bishop Zavala said. 

McCartin said the Catholic Church’s position toward organized labor has become “more complex” from three or four generations ago, when “labor priests” and Catholic labor schools taught rank-and-file workers to form and run unions. 

“The teaching is basically the same, although the degree that it has been put into effect has changed,” McCartin told OSV. 

“I think these social issues have taken a secondary role in the Church,” said Rosswurm, who wondered about the position the Church could find itself in if Catholic legislators vote to curtail collective bargaining. 

“Is voting to bust a union the equivalent of voting pro-choice? This is a moral issue that the Church will have to contend with,” Rosswurm told OSV. 

“Many of our Catholic lawmakers don’t know what the Church teachings are on labor and other issues,” Bishop Zavala said. “Some Catholic lawmakers have not integrated their faith into their voting and consciences. Sometimes, they look for what is expedient and will get them votes.” 

“We need them to understand the Church teaching on all these issues,” Bishop Zavala said. 

Brian Fraga writes from Massachusetts.

Public vs. Private (sidebar)

Father Robert A. Sirico, president and co-founder of the Acton Institute, a conservative think tank, wrote on his blog recently that he does not believe public-sector unions fit the traditional Catholic understanding of organized labor because they are often allied with political parties, contribute to political candidate campaigns, and force public employees to join and pay dues, violating the principle of freedom of association. 

While he acknowledged a “long-standing bias” in Catholic social teaching that dates to labor struggles for fair wages and safe working conditions, he said, “So far as I can tell, the current practice of public-sector union organizing has little or nothing to do with this principle, so it is right and proper that Catholic social teaching should also recognize this.”