A Reply to a Labor Priest
Is There a Moral Duty to Pay Union Dues?
SEPTEMBER 01, 2001 by CHARLES W. BAIRD
In his 1981 encyclical letter, Laborem Exercens, Pope John Paul II declared that workers have “the right of association, that is to form associations for the purpose of defending the vital interests of those employed in the various professions. These associations are called labor or trade unions” (§20). He went on to say that unions “are an indispensable element of social life, especially in modern industrial societies.” Ten years later in his encyclical Centesimus Annus, the pope said that the “reason for the Church’s defense and approval of . . . trade unions [is] because the right of association is a natural right of the human being” (§7). Quoting from Pope Leo XIII’s 1891 encyclical, Rerum Novarum, John Paul noted that “the State is bound to protect natural rights, not to destroy them; and if it forbids its citizens to form associations, it contradicts the very principle of its own existence.”
Apart from the question of whether unions are “indispensable” in social life, I find nothing in the above statements with which to disagree. In fact, I enthusiastically endorse those views, and I did so before I became a Catholic. Freedom of association is a natural right of all men and women. Because the authors of the original U.S. Constitution and the Bill of Rights thought that the primary role of government is to protect and defend the natural rights of its citizens, they prohibited American governments from abrogating the freedom of association. Any law that prohibited the formation of voluntary labor unions would be unconstitutional as well as contrary to natural law.
Is there anything in the principle of freedom of association which logically implies that workers have a moral obligation to join or support unions? I think not. Yet Monsignor George G. Higgins, who was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom by then-President Clinton in August 2000 for his more than 50 years of work as a “labor priest,” disagrees. In his 1993 book, Organized Labor and the Church, he tells the story of his 1990 testimony before the Illinois Educational Labor Relations Board against the application of a Catholic teacher in Illinois for a religious exemption from the forced payment of union dues. The teacher argued that Catholic social teaching opposes such coercion. Citing John Paul and the 1986 American bishops’ pastoral letter, Economic Justice for All, to establish the Church’s approval of unions, Monsignor Higgins expresses agreement with certain “authoritative commentators” that “because unions are morally necessary, there is no denying a certain moral obligation to join a union” (p. 219). I suppose that if something is “morally necessary” one has a moral obligation to support it. But it is a huge leap from John Paul’s statement that unions are an indispensable part of social life in industrial society to the conclusion that they are “morally necessary.” Electricity is an indispensable part of social life in industrial society, and it is even more indispensable in the information technology society of today, yet it is not morally necessary.
Let us examine the statements of the authoritative commentators Monsignor Higgins cites to make his case. Two Jesuit priests, Jean Yves and Jacques Perrin, writing in 1961, asserted a “moral obligation to join a union,” first on the grounds that nonmembers in enterprises that are unionized benefit from the actions the unions undertake (p. 219). This is easily refuted by noting that if unions represented only their voluntary members and no one else there could be no free riders. A quirk in the law that grants unions monopoly bargaining privileges hardly establishes a moral obligation.
Their second argument, which they assert is even stronger than the first, “rests on the moral solidarity of the members of the workers’ group” (p. 219). They argue that although unions are not free to harm members who are out of favor with a union, and they are not free to cut off nonmembers from employment, “it cannot be maintained that workers are absolutely free to refuse to join a union, nor even that they ought not to suffer in some way for not joining.” This supposedly strong argument is nothing more than an assertion. What is the nature of the assumed moral solidarity of members of a “workers’ group”? If they are voluntary members they have a moral obligation to live up to the rules or quit their membership. This says nothing about the moral obligation of nonmembers. It is certainly no logical basis for their conclusion, which is a non sequitur.
Monsignor Higgins also cites Father John F. Cronin, writing in 1950, who “sees the obligation [to join a union] as growing out of the social nature of human beings” (p. 220). Father Cronin says, “The soundest basis for such an opinion is the obligation of all to participate in group action aimed to infuse a proper order in economic life, so that the institutions of society will be directed toward the common good.” Moreover, Father Cronin continues, “in view of the power concentration in modern life, there is need of buffer groups to safeguard individual rights.”
There are many groups that aim their actions toward “a proper order in economic life,” but they do not all agree on what that means. Do we have a moral obligation to participate in the actions of Jesse Jackson’s Rainbow Push Coalition simply because he claims, with about as much legitimacy as labor unions, to seek a “proper order in economic life”? Moreover, civil society includes many “buffer groups to safeguard individual rights.” The private, nonprofit Institute for Justice in Washington, D.C., comes immediately to mind. Do we have a moral obligation to participate in its actions?
Humans are social beings, but morally we must be allowed freely to choose our social affiliations. There is no moral merit in doing something because you are forced to do so. Moral merit consists in choosing to do those things that are right. That is what free will is all about.
Monsignor Higgins then writes, “I do not mean to argue that all workers, always and everywhere, are obliged to join a union” (p. 220). That’s nice, but which workers do not have the obligation? He doesn’t say. He does say that Catholic social teaching “favors some form of guaranteed union security that would require workers to contribute their ‘fair share’ to the cost of administering a legally constituted union” (p. 221). Coerced membership is sometimes not proper, but coerced dues paying is always proper.
Why? He gives no logical answer at all.
The teacher who sought the religious exemption quoted from two church documents to make her case. One was the Second Vatican Council’s Constitution on the Church in the Modern World: “Among the personal rights of the human person must be counted the right of freely founding labor unions. . . . Another such right is that of taking part freely in the activity of these unions without the risk of reprisal” ( p. 221). She reasoned that the “taking part freely” clause precluded being forced to take part. Monsignor Higgins argues that the intent of the authors of the passage was to admonish employers and governments against taking reprisals against those who choose to organize unions. He is right on the intention of the authors, but he is wrong to say that the passage does not support the teacher’s argument. Words have meaning. The passage speaks of voluntary participation in unions, which should be immune to reprisals. But it remains true that if participation is to be voluntary it cannot be coerced.
The second document quoted from by the teacher was the 1963 encyclical of Pope John XXIII, Pacem in Terris: “If we turn our attention to the economics sphere, it is clear that man has a right by natural law not only to an opportunity to work, but also to go about his work without coercion” (p. 222). She argued, correctly, that forced dues paying is a forbidden form of coercion. Monsignor Higgins’s reply is to refer to the “authoritative commentators” he cited earlier.
There is a happy ending to this story. The Illinois Education Labor Relations Board was unconvinced by Monsignor Higgins’s unconvincing arguments. They decided in favor of the teacher.