The Labor Movement, Teachers Unions, and Catholic Social Teaching | Rev. George E. Schultze, SJ | CWR
Labor Day is an opportunity to reflect on nature of work and the proper role of unions in the light of Catholic social teaching
Catholic religious leaders have long supported the labor movement in the United States because it has promoted the economic wellbeing of workers and their families. The Irish, Italian, and Slavic immigrants of the past, and the Latino immigrants of the present, have gained from the efforts of countless Catholic and non-Catholic labor leaders and supporters who have organized workers for better wages, benefits, and working conditions.
A plethora of Catholic men and women have learned to organize workers and engage both the economic powers that be and the wider civil society through labor unions, often climbing to the pinnacles of labor power. Workers and their families recall self-professed Catholics such as Terrence Powderly of the Knights of Labor, Philip Murray and the United Steel Workers, George Meany and John Sweeney, presidents of the AFL-CIO, Cesar Chavez and Dolores Huerta (co-founders of the UFW), and the present day Maria Elena Durazo of the Los Angeles County Federation of Labor. Catholic social teaching in the wake of the industrial revolution contributed reason and faith to organized labor’s activities, even if indirectly, through participation of Catholic union members and the clergy who helped form them.
In recent years, numerous government, academic and media sources have documented the declining numbers of unionized workers in the United States in both relative and absolute numbers; 12% of the workforce is organized and 6% of the union members are public sector workers. While the number of unionists has declined the political strength of labor has grown, especially in its lobbying, political fundraising, and volunteer campaign work. The public sector unions like the Service Employees International Union (SEIU), the National Education Association (NEA), and the American Federation of Teachers (AFT) are at the apex of their political influence. These service and education unions, as well as the building and trades and health care unions, have a distinct advantage over manufacturing unions. Construction, health care, the hospitality industry, and schools remain state-side with little risk of capital flight; furthermore, the young, the ill, and the elderly normally remain close to home. Similarly, the government (the public sector) tends not to set up shop offshore.
While one can laud, for example, the desire and activities of teachers unions that promote students and their families, serve immigrants, and advocate for economic justice, the union leaders and their allies are tragically promoting anti-life and anti-family initiatives as part of their activism. As significant players in public education, they are encouraging cultural perspectives that reject the values of a great number of Americans, including Catholics and other people of good will. This was not always the case in American education and the union movement.