LANSING, Mich. — Catholic commentators have weighed in on both sides of the controversial “right to work” labor bill in the longtime union stronghold of Michigan, with some warning that the law puts workers’ rights at risk while others say the bill reflects workers’ individual choices.
Dr. Maria Mazzenga, an education archivist at The Catholic University of America’s American Catholic History Research Center, said the passage of the law in Michigan is “a sign of labor’s declining power in the face of corporate interest.”
“Michigan has been a leader in unionization historically, and labor leaders and union workers might use this as an opportunity to rethink strategies, do some self-evaluation, and arrive at renewed ways of guaranteeing worker rights,” she told CNA Dec. 13.
On Dec. 11, Michigan Gov. Rick Snyder signed into law “right to work” legislation that makes union dues voluntary for employees of unionized private employers and of most unionized government agencies, with the exceptions of police and firefighter unions.
The Republican-controlled Michigan House passed the bill 58-51 over the objections of labor leaders. The vote attracted thousands of protesters and caused turbulent demonstrations, which ended in the arrest of two demonstrators who tried to enter the building that houses the governor’s office.
Republican Gov. Snyder characterized the legislation as “an opportunity to stand up for Michigan’s workers” at a Dec. 11 press conference.
Mazzenga was critical of the bill.
“Historically, ‘right to work’ legislation has harmed the labor movement,” she said, calling the phrase “a misnomer.”
“These laws do not guarantee any ‘right to work,’ and the phrase itself is used by anti-union folks to make it appear that their anti-union legislation actually guarantees the rights of workers to work.”
She cited the labor mediator and U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops staffer Msgr. George Higgins, who died in 2002. He criticized the “right to work” phrase as “a verbal deception, a play on words used to cloak the real purpose of the laws, which is to enforce further restrictions upon union activity.”
“‘Right to work’ laws did not come from employees seeking rights, they come from, as we see in Michigan, employer-backed sources seeking to curtail the power of labor,” Mazzenga said.
Father Sinclair Oubre, spiritual moderator of the Texas-based Catholic Labor Network, also criticized the legislation. In “right to work” states, he said, workers have had “a much harder time exercising their right to associate into unions.”
“In addition, ‘right to work’ legislation allows some workers to benefit from the collective effort of other workers without standing in solidarity with them,” he explained. “This is similar to someone going to Mass and not contributing to the collection, claiming a right that it is their decision to give or not to give.”
Among the bill’s Catholic supporters is Father Robert Sirico, president of the Michigan-based Acton Institute for the Study of Religion and Liberty.
“Who knows best what workers need? It seems to me that workers themselves know best what they need,” Father Sirico said.
“This legislation, to my understanding, will not stop people from joining unions. What’s stopping people from joining unions is pricing the work out of the market. That seems to be the judgment of most workers in Michigan, at least in the private sector,” he said.
Father Sirico cited the decline in private sector union membership in Michigan, saying that workers “feel that their interests are best served by being able to negotiate their own contracts in a competitive market.” He said Catholic teaching holds that the right to join a union is “rooted in the natural right to association” which means people have “the right to associate or not associate.”
The priest added that the Catholic Church has no policy position on particular legislation but rather “a set of principles” concerning justice and “the best prudential opportunities that are available to workers for the sake of their families, and the well-being of the community as a whole.”
Father Oubre rejected any depiction of the legislation as a workers’ initiative.
“It was backed by large funders whose goal is to undermine unions till they don’t matter. Then workers will be standing alone in relationship with their employers. When that occurs, workers will be back to conditions of Leo XIII in 1891.”
Pope Leo XIII helped collect and promulgate Catholic social teaching through several encyclicals that responded to the rise of capitalism and socialism and the injustices of both systems. Since the 19th century, Popes have continued the tradition through their own encyclicals.
Father Oubre cited Pope John Paul II’s 1981 encyclical Laborem Exercens, which said unions “defend the existential interests of workers in all sectors in which their rights are concerned” and are “an indispensable element of social life, especially in modern industrialized societies.”
The priest said the Church’s relationship with unions is “both supportive and challenging.”
“Without endorsing every tactic of unions or every outcome of collective bargaining, the Church affirms the rights of workers in public and private employment to choose to come together to form and join unions, to bargain collectively, and to have an effective voice in the workplace,” he said.
“At their best, unions are important not just for the economic protections and benefits they can provide for their members, but especially for the voice and participation they can offer to workers.”
Father Oubre said Catholic social teaching promotes “a vision of co-responsibility to promote the common good” in economic effort. Both labor and management are “intrinsically tied together.”
“When either side tries to reduce the voice and place of the other, the potential for injustice grows, and co-responsibility is undermined,” he said.
Father Sirico said employers have the responsibility to pay their employees “living wages” and to be “competitive in the market” and profitable “because that’s the only way in which the workers can be paid.”
“Owners have to provide an environment that is decent, that protects the dignity of the worker, that ensures for a vibrant business,” he continued.
He said Catholics should decide the extent to which they cooperate with organizations that promote policies that are “intrinsically evil.” He said all the unions in Michigan favor abortion rights and mandatory employer coverage for contraception.
At the same time, Father Oubre argued that Catholic action can reform unions.
“The problem with the unions taking some of these positions on these cultural war issues is that we did not have enough Catholics in the discussions, or, we had Catholics who were not faithful to their faith sitting on the committee that developed these positions,” he said.
“The way to change this is not to abandon the only institution that is working for worker justice and which the workers themselves oversee, which would be so contrary to the call of Vatican II to engage the world, but by better catechizing our Catholics, encouraging them to move toward leadership in labor unions, and better engaging the leadership of the unions on these issues,” said Father Oubre. “This is what we did in the 1940s and 1950s to halt the influence of communism in the unions.”