by Joseph Fahey, Pax Christi USA Ambassador of Peace
Catholic Scholars for Worker Justice

Ed. Note: This article is part of our continuing series of posts in support of the Pax Christi USA Statement of Principles for the 2020 Elections. To read more about the 2020 elections, visit our Elections 2020 – #VotePax webpage.

Catholic Social Teaching has long protected workers’ rights and encouraged workers to join labor unions. For Catholics, support for labor unions is a moral issue that is rooted in Jesus’ love for the poor. Let us be inspired by the words of Pope Francis: “Trade unions have been an essential force for social change, without which a semblance of a decent and humane society is impossible under capitalism.”

This could not be more important to the Catholic voter in 2020 than the choice between Donald Trump and Joe Biden in this election year. 

Trump has done everything in his power to destroy the right of workers to join labor unions and to engage in collective bargaining. He has seen to it that workers in Catholic institutions—especially at Catholic universities—have no federal legal protection to join unions. He has dashed the hopes of migrants and agricultural workers to basic legal and sanitary protections as they seek to feed their families. He has torn children from their parents at our borders. His disdain for science has resulted in over 200,000 deaths in this pandemic. For Catholics being pro-life means supporting the totality of human existence.

Joe Biden and the Democratic party have traditionally supported labor unions and the many benefits unions bring to our society: a living wage, workplace security and safety, a forty-hour work week, health protection, education for their children, vacations with pay, and old-age pensions to name a few. That tradition is solidly based on Catholic teaching that is rooted in the Gospel mandate to see that the Reign of God begins with a commitment to the poor, the neglected, and the despised. 

To assist you in understanding the long tradition of Catholic support for workers and labor unions and the weight this should have in forming your conscience this election, the following summary of Catholic teaching on labor unions will be of assistance.

The Vatican’s Compendium of the Social Doctrine of the Church ( – 2004) is a remarkable summary of 2000 years of official Catholic Social Teaching. To place Catholic teaching on labor unions in its proper context, the serious reader will consult the chapters on, “Principles of the Church’s Social Doctrine” (pp. 71-94), and “Human Work,” “Economic Life,” and “Political Life.” (pp. 115-182) Several principles emerge in this significant treatment of Catholic teaching on labor unions:

* Unions are indispensable for the universal common good. Catholic teaching states that labor unions are a “positive influence for social order and solidarity, and are therefore an indispensable element of social life.” (# 305) Further, Catholic teaching states that unions must play an active role “in the whole task of economic and social development and in the attainment of the universal common good.” (#307) The Church teaches that unions are essential to a socially just society.     

* Unions are rooted in the right of free association. In Catholic teaching the right to form unions is neither a privilege nor a mere product of positive civil law. The Compendium states, “The Magisterium recognizes the fundamental role played by labor unions whose existence is connected with the right to form associations or unions to defend the vital interests of workers employed in the various professions.” (#305) The Church teaches that free association is rooted in the natural law that cannot be abridged or denied by civil law. Further, employers may not invoke even a legally determined civil law in order to deny a right rooted in the natural law.  Hence, any attempt to deny free association is a violation of natural law that is rooted in divine law.

* Unions protect the right to fair wages and benefits. The Compendium states, “Remuneration is the most important means for achieving justice in work relationships. The ‘just wage is the legitimate fruit of work.’ They commit grave injustice who refuse to pay a just wage or who do not give it in due time and proportion to the work done (cf. Lv 19:13; Dt 24:14-15; Jas 5:4).” (#302) The Church further defines a just wage as such that workers “may be furnished the means to cultivate…material, social, cultural and spiritual life and that of his dependents…” The principle that “natural justice always is above the freedom of the contract” has led the Church to consistently reject a “minimum wage” that fails the higher standard of a just or living wage, even if that minimum wage was freely negotiated.    

* Unions foster solidarity through participation and subsidiarity. Solidarity—especially expressed as a “preferential option for the poor”—has long been a cornerstone of Catholic Social Teaching.  Solidarity is based on “the intrinsic social nature of the human person” and the “bond of interdependence between individuals and peoples.” (#192) Subsidiarity defends “smaller essential cells of society” that serve as “intermediate associations” between the individual and the state.  The Compendium teaches that “The characteristic implication of subsidiarity is participation…by means of which the citizen, either as an individual or in association with others, whether directly or through representation, contributes to the cultural, economic, political and social life of the civil community to which he belongs. (#189) The Church supports unions as intermediate associations that contribute to the solidarity of all through collective bargaining that contributes to the universal common good.

* The United States Conference of Catholic Bishops supports labor unions. In 1986 the US bishops published a remarkable pastoral letter, Economic Justice for All. In this statement the bishops gave their full support to “the right of workers to form unions” and stated, “We vehemently oppose violations of the freedom to associate, for they are an intolerable attack on social solidarity.” (#104)

In summary, Roman Catholic teaching not only supports the natural “right” of workers to form labor unions in order to bargain collectively for just wages and benefits, it actually encourages workers to form unions based on the right of free association. Any agency that denies this right is in violation of the natural law and no civil law and no economic enterprise may deny this right to pursue the universal common good. 

Let this rich Catholic tradition guide your conscience as you vote in this most crucial Presidential election.

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