Benedict XVI on Labor Unions

By Baird, Charles W. | Freeman, December 2009 | Go to article overview

Benedict XVI on Labor Unions


Baird, Charles W., Freeman


On June 29 Pope Benedict XVI issued an encyclical letter titled Caritas in Ventate (CV) in which he discusses several economic questions. There is much in the letter that suggests Benedict lacks a clear understanding of economics, such as his belief that market exchanges should involve things of equal value. However, notwithstanding absurd claims by union bosses, the encyclical cannot reasonably be read to endorse unionism as we know it. Some unionists have gone so far as to assert that CV demonstrates that Benedict supports the deceptively named Employee Free Choice Act (EFCA; www.tinyurl.com/pefn5t). The pope actually says little about unions, and there is nothing in C V to suggest that Benedict supports American-style coercive unionism, much less the efforts of union bosses to attain even more coercive power over workers through the EFCA.

In §25 of CV Benedict worries that "deregulation" of labor markets can be hazardous to the interests of workers. AFL-CIO chief John Sweeney and Service Employees International Union (SEIU) president Andy Stern interpret this as Benedictine support of regulations like the National Labor Relations Act (NLRA). However, Benedict neither cites any concrete examples of the deregulation he abhors nor endorses any specific labor regulation regimes. He is concerned that the pressures of global competition can diminish the ability of "workers associations" to protect the legitimate interests of workers. He explains:

Through the combination of social and economic change, trade union organizations experience greater difficulty in carrying out their task of representing the interests of workers, partly because Governments, for reasons of economic utility, often limit the freedom or the negotiating capacity of labour unions. . . . The repeated calls issued within the Church's social doctrine, beginning with Rerum Novarum, for the promotion of workers' associations that can defend their rights must therefore be honoured today even more than in the past. . . .

Of course workers should never be forbidden to join voluntary workers associations in support of worker rights. Nor should any government limit the ability of such associations to represent the interests of their members. Although Benedict did not describe workers associations as "voluntary," his reference to Leo XIII's 1891 Rerum Novarum (RN) makes clear that that is what he had in mind. In §54 of RN Leo warned that workers should not be forced to join labor unions that "do the utmost to get within their grasp the whole field of labor and force workingmen to join them or to starve." A more fitting description of the EFCA, which would permit union thugs to terrorize any worker who refused to sign a union card, is hard to find.

Leo revisited the question of legitimate unions in Longinqua (1895). Such unions have "very important duties" among which are "not to touch what belongs to another; to allow everyone to be free in the management of his own affairs; [and] not to hinder any one to dispose of his services when he pleases and where he pleases" (§16). The NLRA violates each of these duties. Union security (forced dues) allows unions to touch and take what belongs to another; exclusive representation (forbidding individuals to decide on their own whether to be represented by a union) denies workers the right to manage their own affairs; and strike rules prohibit workers from disposing of their services when they please and where they please.

In §63 of CF Benedict writes that part of the definition of "decent work" is "work that permits the workers to organize themselves freely, and to make their voices heard." Yet exclusive representation prohibits free organization and overrides individual voices. Individual choice in affiliation is overridden by mandatory submission of a numerical minority to the will of a numerical majority. Individuals are forbidden to represent themselves. Individuals are forbidden to discuss terms and conditions of employment with their employers without union permission. …

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