Sinning Against a Union?

“Catholic scholars say those who thwart labor unions commit mortal sin,” says the headline from Catholic News Service.

It’s an accurate characterization of a statement released by a group called Catholic Scholars for Worker Justice. (You can read the statement in full at the organization’s web site.) It’s certainly attention-grabbing, but is it sound moral analysis?

The answer is no. I’m not trained as a moral theologian, but I do know something about Catholic social teaching and I can apply elementary rules of logic, which is all I need to poke some holes in the statement in question.

Now the statement should not be dismissed as nonsense. It builds on material gleaned from genuine sources of CST such as the Compendium of the Social Doctrine and the Catechism of the Catholic Church. It rightly notes that the social teaching declares that unions are “a positive influence for social order and solidarity, and are therefore an indispensible element of social life.” It rightly notes that CST insists on the right of workers to organize, as a corollary of the right of voluntary association.

But the statement engages in some slippery reasoning and ambiguous language to get from there to its conclusions. “Union busting is a mortal sin,” it declares; and union busting “refers to the action of any person who seeks to prevent employees from forming a labor union, or who attempts to undermine or destroy an existing union.”

So, any person, anywhere, at anytime, who, for any reason, seeks to prevent the formation of a union or seeks to “undermine” an existing union is committing sin? (I’m leaving aside the issue of mortal vs. venial sin for the sake of simplicity.)

This is a pretty sloppy application of Catholic social teaching.

The documents of CST do not simply endorse unions, without qualification. Indeed, CST condemns unions under certain conditions: such as those that serve private interest rather than the common good or those that by their stated or implicit aims attack the Church or Church teaching. For a time, CST even discouraged Catholics from joining unions that did not have an explicitly Catholic character. The point is that CST leaves it as a matter of conscience as to whether any one, specific union ought to be joined/supported/endorsed. Blanket prohibitions and obligations are out of place on this issue.

Not only is it theoretically possible that individuals–whether employers, employees, or other parties–might have an obligation to oppose (or “undermine”) union activity, one might easily cite cases. During the Cold War era, many labor priests and Catholic trade unionists–who were stridently “pro-labor” as a general rule–in some instances worked actively to destroy unions that were under the control of Communists. In a more contemporary example, Catholics have joined with other people of good will to “undermine” various unions by withholding dues that would otherwise fund activity to which the individual workers are in conscience opposed (such as supporting pro-abortion political candidates).

I suspect–though I don’t know–that the CSWJ folks would want to permit these sorts of exceptions, but their statement as written does not. To push the point a little further, I would argue that a Catholic employer may well be permitted to oppose the formation of a union in his or her company, if the formation of that union is deemed to be detrimental to the common good (meaning the good of the workers, the company, and society). The employer must in all cases respect the right of the workers to organize, and must never use immoral or illegal means to oppose a union, but an absolute moral prohibition on employers engaging in information-provision or non-coercive forms of persuasion seems unjustified.

The CSWJ statement could have been a helpful document by thoughtfully addressing the question of what criteria should be used to determine when or when not to support labor organizing. Instead, it engages in simplistic moral analysis that will be useful primarily as a stick to beat anyone who might challenge the practices, utility, or character of any given union.

Subscribe to CE
(It's free)

Go to Catholic Exchange homepage

  • HCSKnight

    Re: “the statement should not be dismissed as nonsense”

    It absolutely should be, and the Bishops have a responsibility to make clear the errors.

    First of all, it is NOT the place for a Catholic Political organization to claim what is a mortal or venial sin. The mere act claiming such a thing should be enough to give any intelligent and charitable Catholic grave concern regarding the group’s true purpose, motives and charity.

    Second, as you correctly pointed out, their logic, and I’ll add their attribution of sanctity to something which is not sacred, is to be kind laughable if it were not so disturbing.

    One of the fundamental problems going on in the Catholic Church, and it directly relates to the sex abuse scandal, is the post-Vatican II mentality, “theology”, that lost focus of Religion and turned it’s eye to the idols of what are in essence the gods of Humanism. The fruits and profession of Humanism are “social justice” and “social service/servants”.

    It is not bad to work for the good of “social/societal” things, it is an obligation. Buut it is gravely wrong to place these objects as equals to the Sacraments or the Ten Commandments.

    The fact is the effects of this error are most clearly seen in the way the Novo Ordo Mass is “celebrated” and heard in the homilies of far too many priests. When the Mass is so perverted, far far beyond the intent and guidance given in Vatican II, it should be no surprise that the sheeple become so lost.

    Sadly, what is most disturbing is the silence of the priesthood regarding this fundamental error.

    Make no mistake. There is absolutely no way the sexual scandal that has come to be revealed could have ever occurred without fundamental errors of Faith and understanding of the Sacraments and Mass by the priesthood.

    If these assertions are not dismissed as “nonsense”, then what are truths of the Sacraments? How Holy is holy?

    In the end, “labor” which fights for the fruits of the material world… are at heart materialistic and of the world.


  • My experience with unions is filled with enmity, and I am not a fan unions. Let me explain.

    In 1966 0r 1967, after returning from Vietnam, my step-brother acquired a job hauling gravel for a small business owner. The only employees and drivers were the owner and my step-brother. For several weeks, the Teamsters Union tried to persuade the business owner and my step-brother to join the union. They both steadfastly refused because the union could not provide any additional benefits to them. The union only wanted their money. One August afternoon in a remote section of the gravel pit, a union boss and one of his goons approached my step-brother’s truck from either side. The union boss pushed a clipboard with the union application in the driver’s window and told my step-brother to sign it. When he once again refused, the union boss put a 38-caliber pistol to his head and the good shoved a sawed-off shotgun through the passenger window. Needless to say, my step-brother signed the papers as did his boss later in the day.

    My own experience was with the IBEW in 1968. I worked for a small manufacturing company that paid its employees top wages with great health benefits. Four disgruntled employees petitioned for the IBEW to represent the employees. When the union rep spoke to us, he stated that after having full review of the company’s books, the union could help us receive higher wages or better health benefits. When I asked why we needed the union other than to fill the union’s coffers, he had no answer.

    On the Friday before the election on the following Tuesday, two of the four pro-unionists and three union goons surround my car in the company parking lot and the head goon told me to get out of my car, I pretended to open my car door and the floored the gas. I knocked two of the men over and drove off. On the Monday before the election, I reported the incident to company management. On Tuesday, we employees voted 104-4 against the union.

    If blocking a union from forcing people to join it, which if passed the union-card law would be doing, is a sin, then I am a sinner because I will always fight against union takeover of any organization. I believe that every person has the right to work without having to pay a union for the right to do so.


  • Corrections to my first comments. In para 1, “fan unions” should read “fan of unions”. In para 2, line 8, the word “good” should be “goon”. In para 3, line 4, “could help us” should read “could not help us”. In para 4, line 2, “surround” should be “surrounded”

  • I am fairly sure that it’s Thomas Sowell who has said that it rarely takes more than a generation or two for a valid resistance movement to become a protection racket.

    Unions were at one time a valid resistance movement. Mining companies were particularly egregious oppressors of their employees, and purchased Browning M2 .50cal machine guns as “labor relations equipment.” But the NLRA here in the US has basically given all power to the unions, to the point that when striking Teamsters fired on Greyhound buses, that was not considered as sufficient reason to fire those particular drivers once the strike was ended.

  • danielb

    There was a lot of hope that unions would protect workers both materially and spiritually in a world that was falling apart as a result of the Industrial Revolution. Just read “Rerum Novarum,” written in 1891. But, even then, Pope Leo warned about the “evidence” that unions were being taken over by a bad element “hurtful to religion and the commonwealth.” The Holy Father consequently taught that if a man had to choose between a union that would compromise his faith and having no union at all, he would have to choose the latter. I used to believe that unions were a benevolent movement for good until they were taken over by organized crime sometime in the 20th century. (I believe that’s the popular conception of how things went.) However, I have recently done some research into the history of the labor movement in The United States, and have found that they were part and parcel of the Socialist movement from the very beginning. The facts bear out (in the Socialists own writings and actions) that Socialism was always atheistic, anti-democratic, and anti-Catholic from the very beginning. So, arm yourselves with the truth, and don’t be afraid of what these foolish priests and bishops may say.