Trade Unions & the Catholic Church by Gerry O'Shea : CALL TO ACTION BLOG

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Trade Unions & the Catholic Church by Gerry O'Shea

by Call To Action on 03/23/18

In the early 20th century, the Catholic church was strongly in favor of the development of trade unions, a major controversial public issue at that time. Pope Leo's encyclical Rerum Novarum, which was promulgated in 1891, vigorously promoted the right of workers to organize and negotiate their wages and terms of employment.

Employers used every trick in the book - fair and foul - to prevent workers from having an organized voice. Employees often looked to Rome for support, and every pope since Leo has affirmed that workers have a clear moral right to union representation.

 Mike Quill, the outstanding Kerry man who founded the Transport Workers' Union with help from the Communist Party in the 1930's, laced his speeches with references to papal statements of support for workers' rights.

Pope Francis has confronted the conservative argument that the best economic arrangement for workers is a laissez faire approach where big company profits will flow downwards and increase the salaries of ordinary workers. Francis knows better: Trickle-down economics "expresses a crude and naive trust in those wielding economic power."

For the last fifty years the American Catholic Church has become increasingly conservative, rarely heard about the travails of workers or the plight of trade unions, rallying its members instead against abortion, gay rights and, disgracefully, even opposing Obamacare, which mostly helped the poor and working families, because it mandated the availability of contraceptives in all health insurance policies.

Bishops and cardinals are rarely heard about the serious economic inequality that now permeates American society where the top 1% has accumulated more wealth than the bottom 80%, and current Republican economic policies are making the situation even more unfair. Where are the prophetic voices on pulpits, crying out against the moral depravity of public policies that rob the poor and ordinary workers to give the millionaires even fatter bank accounts?

The situation for workers was better in the 1970's because unions were strong enough to insist on decent wages and conditions for their members. Since then union membership has declined to a mere 6.8% of workers in private industry and to 34% among public employees.

The union movement is facing a major crisis in a case that is currently before the Supreme Court.  In what is known as the Janus case, the court must decide whether to nationalize Right-to-Work laws. If the court weighs in on the side of Janus then non-union employees would be exempted from contributing to the costs of negotiating and defending the labor contract worked out by the union.

 At present employees in 22 states who choose not to join a union are mandated to pay what is called an agency fee, contributing in that way to the cost of contractual negotiations.

If the court rules against the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees (AFSCME), then workers, like Mr. Janus, would become freeloaders, benefiting from union negotiations but not paying a penny for the service.

 Such a ruling seems likely because Republicans - against all precedent - refused to confirm Merrick Garland, President Obama's nominee to replace Anthony Scalia on the Supreme Court, instead packing the court with Neil Gorsuch, a nominee with strong right-wing conservative credentials.

A decision against AFSCME would cripple union organizing nationwide, and just imagine the disgruntlement of union members paying higher union dues to benefit freeloading co-workers. Keep in mind that nobody wants to force any worker into joining a union or to compel any employee to contribute to any political party; the sole issue is that workers who benefit from contractual negotiations should pay an agency fee for this service.

The Catholic bishops, true to their honorable pro-union heritage, have filed a strong  brief with the Supreme Court supporting the AFSCME position, arguing cogently that Janus' case is "a misguided effort to protect one individual from government coercion" without giving due weight to the powerful argument that the common good of all workers requires the rejection of any law that, in effect, protects freeloaders.

Bishop David Zubick of Pittsburg wrote a strong, heartfelt column in his diocesan newspaper seconding the amicus brief of the Bishops' Conference." I grew up in a union household. My father was able to support his family thanks to leadership of his union, Local 590.  .... The role of unions in supporting strong families is one of the reasons that the church has supported the labor movement from its earliest days."

The common good, what benefits the community as a whole as distinct from the private gain of individuals, is paramount in all the social teaching of the Catholic Church. One hopes that this core moral perspective will prevail in the Janus case before the Supreme Court.

Gerry O'Shea blogs at


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“Amoris Laetitia”

“Amoris Laetitia” is the result of Pope Francis’ prayerful reflection on the discussions and outcomes of two Synods of Bishops (an Extraordinary Synod in 2014 and an Ordinary Synod in 2015), on the subject of marriage and the family. The Synod of Bishops is an assembly of bishops who assist the Pope by providing counsel on questions facing the Church.

Pope Francis issued “Amoris Laetitia” in 2016 as an apostolic exhortation, a papal teaching on marriage and the family. Amoris Laetitia is Latin for “The Joy of Love”. Apostolic exhortations are used to share the conclusions reached by the Pope after prayerful consideration of the recommendations of a Synod of Bishops. Such documents are a means for the pope to exhort/encourage the faithful to a deeper life of Christian discipleship. The pope has asked the clergy to accompany the faithful in addressing challenges families face today.

The US Conference of Catholic Bishops (USCCB) have asked that all who care about the future of the family should read this apostolic exhortation and study it in its entirety. In their 2017-2020 Strategic Plan (Encountering the Mercy of Christ and Accompanying His People with Joy), one of the five USCCB priorities is family and marriage -- ways to encourage and heal families.

What is the good news of Amoris Laetitia? No one is condemned forever. The pope has asked us not to put so many conditions on mercy that we empty it of its meaning and significance.
How should we respond, joining together with the US Conference of Catholic Bishops (USCCB),
in developing a plan to implement the good news of “Amoris Laetitia”?

We, the Catholics who are the church, are called to action in strengthening and sustaining all families: 
We are called to dialogue with our leaders, who in turn are called to accompany us on this faith journey.
We are called to make moral decisions and life choices, formed by our conscience. The church is called to help form our consciences, not to replace them.
We are called to act, to engage and to support families in all the ways they are living.
We are called to pray, to engage the whole church in the power of intercessory prayer for wisdom and mercy in raising awareness of the message of “Amoris Laetitia”.

Join with the members of Call to Action, Metro NY Chapter, in the dialogue that Cardinal Daniel DiNardo, President of the USCCB called for in his address on November 13, 2017, when he said, “It is the work of the church, the entire body of Christ, to work towards an ever-growing understanding of God’s truth.” Cardinal DiNardo asked us to speak with civility in debating issues of social challenge and social teaching.

Call to Action, Metro NY Chapter, is setting up a virtual study group to read and discuss “Amoris Laetitia”. We will explore our responsibility for the formation of our conscience and discernment. We will study each of the chapters of “Amoris Laetitia” and in doing so, will shape the prayers of the faithful in 2018. Beginning February 14th, we will start the conversation.  

Join us in this prayerful conversation of how we, together with the American bishops, will implement “Amoris Laetitia”. Thus empowered, we will open the hearts and minds of our church to invite those on the margins, to join us in celebrating God’s love for each of us.

Buy a copy of “Amoris Laetitia” which can be purchased locally at Catholic book stores such as Pauline Books & Media (112 E 29 St in Manhattan), the St Francis Book Shop (135 W 31 St in Manhattan), or on Amazon. Start reading Chapter One. Sign up now by sending an email to to receive Study Guide Questions and learn how you can join the conversation.

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