Public Sector Unions in Catholic Social Teaching

Public Sector Unions in Catholic Social Teaching July 14, 2018

Your humble servant has lately been posting in these pages [1] [2] [3] about right-to-work laws, and the Supreme Court case of Janus v. State, County, and Municipal Employees [4], and since Janus involved a public employee union, a question has arisen has arisen as to whether such unions should be considered differently than private sector unions in Catholic social teaching. I will make an attempt to address that question here.

The Massachusetts Militia arrives during the 1919 Boston police strike.

As is the wont here at Christian Democracy, we should proceed to examine the body of Catholic social teaching to see what distinctions are made between private and public sector unions in that source. But there is a problem. Catholic social teaching makes no such distinction. Rather, the “Magisterium recognizes the fundamental role played by labour 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,” (Compendium of the Social Doctrine of the Church, §305) [5], and this without any qualification based on who the employer might be. Moreover, public employees surely have vital interests to defend as much as their private counterparts. Since there is no distinction made between private and public labor unions in Catholic social teaching, any attempt to import one is illegitimate.

An objection may be made here that the Magisterium hasn’t addressed the issue, so the question remains open. But public employee unions have been around, in the United States at least, since the late 19th century. [6] The Magisterium has had ample opportunity to address the issue. This, of course, doesn’t mean that the Magisterium couldn’t do so in the future. But the fact that the distinction hasn’t been made in all of this time, and the further fact that labor unions in general have received magisterial support on numerous occasions, does mean that any argument that public sector unions should be distinguished in Catholic teaching rests on a shaky foundation, at best. We are certainly not entitled to presume that Catholic teaching contains such a distinction. Logically, magisterial teaching on labor unions includes all unions, including those representing public employees; and it is never a safe bet to abandon logic when interpreting Catholic teaching.

Because Janus involved a public sector union, there was a First Amendment component to the case that wouldn’t necessarily be present in one involving unions in the private sector. The Court ruled that Janus being required to support an organization he disagreed with, even in the form of a reduced agency fee, violated his free speech rights. Even if this was a sound interpretation of the First Amendment (an opinion not at all unanimous), we must brave the headwinds and point out that the First Amendment is a provision of a secular document, not Church teaching. As secularly sacred as the First Amendment is in the United States, with respect to freedom of expression anyway, it cannot be cited for the purpose of explaining what Catholic social teaching contains.

Another point that has been made in favor of distinguishing public sector unions is that the ultimate employers of public employees are the taxpayers, who have an interest in keeping public expenses down. But this actually militates against the argument that public employee unions should be considered differently. The taxpayers have the same economic interest in keeping compensation as low as possible as do stockholders. But there is no more justice in the taxpayers being unconscionable employers than those of the private sector. Thus, public employees have the same reason to collectively organize as do those who work for private employers. That is, if we’re going to apply Catholic social teaching to the question.


The icon of St. Joseph the Worker is by Daniel Nichols.

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  • Emil Faber

    As I stated on Face book, nothing in Janus denies workers “the right to form associations or unions to defend the vital interests of workers employed in the various professions,” It only prevents workers being forced to pay dues that are used for political efforts that they may oppose.

    For example, should I be required to fund union efforts to advocate for birth control or abortions being provided as a employee benefit by my employer?

  • Lisa Clarke


    Do you think the government should force Catholic employees to give money to a union that supports anal sex and killing unborn babies? Why won’t you answer this yes or no?

  • Ancalagon

    In the Army we used to joke about unionizing. It’s worked pretty well for the PDs and teachers as far as I can tell, why not the military? “You can’t tell me to low crawl under that concertina wire towards that machine gun nest until I’ve seen my union rep!”

    I wonder what Catholic social teaching has to say about that?

  • Tom O.

    I have never criticized the existence of labor unions. I think they can serve as a check against poor ownership and management of a company. The question that was addressed is how you make sure that a union is a good steward of their members money. It is not unlike the delema of how to make sure the government is a good steward of our tax dollars. Making union membership optional is a good start. The Janus decision is ultimately going to make the unions more responsive to the union members, and makes the leadership more accountable to the members.

  • Better yet, should our parish workers be unionized? Parish workers are way more likely to be underpaid than anybody in the private sector these days, especially under more job openings than willing workers.

  • Jack Quirk

    No. That’s what agency fees are for, to cover an employee’s share of the cost of collective bargaining when that employee chooses to not join the union. Until we can get needed reforms so that labor unions stick to their proper role, instead of being handmaidens to political parties, I think that strikes the right balance. But we should pay for the service of collective bargaining regardless. Just because the union supports things we oppose doesn’t mean we’re entitled to free services. In standing for justice we too must be just.

    But part of me is sorry that Catholics would take that position, because I would rather that sincere Catholics would be in a position to vote for union leadership that wouldn’t take positions repugnant to our faith. Still, I wouldn’t argue that someone should be compelled to compromise their conscience.

  • Jack Quirk

    No. But you should be required to pay an agency fee to cover your share of the cost of collective bargaining.

  • Emil Faber

    Now that is the point of Janus. I should not be required to pay an agency fee to cover my share of the cost of collective bargaining if that funds union efforts that I oppose. Refer to my example where a union advocates for birth control or abortions being provided as a employee benefit by my employer.

  • Jack Quirk

    And I oppose the holding in Janus. If you were a union member you could not only state but vote your opposition. But if you choose to not be a union member, you can’t. Those are your choices. But in engaging in collective bargaining on your behalf the union is giving you a benefit. Union workers make more than their non-unionized counterparts. And you don’t turn down the raise the union obtains for you. You don’t donate the extra money to charity until the union stops asking for birth-control coverage. (Maybe you do personally, but I’m speaking generally here.) The result is that you get a benefit for free that others have to pay for, which is an injustice. And if you hired in knowing that a union was in place, the injustice is exacerbated. Truthfully, while I think agency fees strike the right balance, I think it would be better if Catholics stayed in their unions. That way they could vote against leadership that takes the union in an immoral direction.