Columns Law & Court Mark Silk: Spiritual Politics Opinion

The Catholic-Labor Alliance is back

U.S. Catholic bishops listen as Archbishop Wilton D. Gregory speaks during a Mass on June 14, 2017, in Indianapolis. (AP Photo/Darron Cummings)

As RNS readers will know, a week ago the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishop filed a brief with the Supreme Court that supports the right of public sector unions to operate with a closed shop.

Waking up from a 20-year nap, Father Rip Fitz Winkle hit the snooze button. “The bishops are backing labor unions?” he said. “They’ve been doing that since the days of Good Pope Leo. Tell me something I don’t know.”

“What you don’t know, Father, is that over the past couple of decades the bishops have drifted rightward, downplaying traditional Catholic social teaching to such a degree that they sometimes sound like the Republican Party at prayer. Why, they even opposed extending health coverage to millions of uninsured Americans because it would require some faith-based nonprofits to tell the government they don’t want to provide free contraceptive services to their female employees.”

“So you’re telling me that the bishops have actually come out against unions?” Rip asked.

“No, not that. And they haven’t embraced the death penalty or the deportation of illegal immigrants either. But when it comes to economic policy, they’ve been missing in action. That’s why the brief they filed in Janus v. American Federation of State, County, and Municipal Employees is news.”

“OK, I’m awake.”

In fact, the bishops begin their brief with Good Pope Leo—Leo XIII’s 1891 encyclical Rerum Novarum (Of New Things), which put the Church solidly behind unions as essential to defending workers’ rights. And they go on to make clear that in backing organized labor, they have long opposed what’s known as “right-to-work” laws.

Those laws, which were allowed at the state level by the 1947 Taft-Hartley Act, let employees decline to join a union while working in a union shop. They thus can be “free riders”—receiving the benefits of membership without having to pay the dues.

What Janus v. AFSCME would do is make right-to-work a constitutional right—barring public unions everywhere in the country from requiring membership. And if such a right is established for public unions, can private ones be far behind?

The bishops point out that allowing free riders “dramatically weakens” unions and, “in turn, their bargaining power on behalf of workers, as experience in ‘right-to-work’ states has borne out.” The closed shop is, they recognize, “a necessary concomitant of the right of workers to organize and bargain collectively.”

It is telling that the bishops’ usual allies in religious liberty cases, the Becket Fund for Religious Liberty and the American Center for Law and Justice, have filed briefs on behalf of right-to-work—but not on religious liberty grounds, because there aren’t any.

As the bishops point out, there’s a long-standing exemption for any employee whose religious beliefs keep her from joining a union. It’s an exemption that solves the free-rider problem by requiring her to contribute the amount she would have paid in dues to a charitable cause.

Instead, joining the parade of right-wing amici eager to destroy organized labor, Becket and ACLJ contend that making someone join a union involves “compelled speech”—on the grounds that the union’s political activities, up to and including involvement in electoral campaigns, unconstitutionally requires members to contribute to causes they may not personally support.

Of course, there are various situations where compelled speech has been deemed lawful —from filling out your tax returns to mandatory student fees that support groups with which some students might disagree.

The bishops’ most striking argument is based on their unhappiness with the Court’s finding a constitutional right to abortion in Roe v. Wade and to same-sex marriage in Obergefell. In both cases, they say, the decision “marginalizes” their voices “with respect to an important public policy debate by declaring their position to lie beyond the constitutional pale.”

The same would be the case if the closed shop were constitutionally forbidden. Now there’s an argument for the conservatives on the Court to reckon with.

Ultimately, the bishops take their stand on the crucial importance to civil society of voluntary associations, whether they be unions or, indeed, the Church itself. Without them, society would become “less diverse, less vibrant, and so less capable of withstanding overweening powers—whether of the market or of the state—that may threaten the dignity of the person.”

The irony, they say, is that “a misguided effort to protect one individual” from government coercion would leave only individuals to stand against government (or economic coercion.” Boom!

So what led the bishops to abandon their recent diffidence and stand up for workers against the powers-that-be? That’s for insiders to know and you to find out.

But I’ll tell you this: The tectonic plates are shifting at the Bishops Conference. And if Pope Francis lives long enough to appoint another few dozen bishops, they’re going to shift a lot more.

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About the author

Mark Silk

Mark Silk is Professor of Religion in Public Life at Trinity College and director of the college's Leonard E. Greenberg Center for the Study of Religion in Public Life. He is a Contributing Editor of the Religion News Service

29 Comments

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  • Like everything else in this world what sounds good in theory never materializes as such. One must wonder if labor union are just going to revert back to the corruption it is known for, causing more damage than good. Cue On the Waterfront.

  • If unions were such a good deal, elites wouldn’t need to force people to join. As with all socialist systems, though, the product they push is bad so they rely on insults, intimidation and government compulsion to force people to choose something they clearly don’t want.

    This is not a matter of Faith and Morals. The Bishops do not have any more standing on this topic than me. They should spend more time dealing with the moral crisis in their midst; the very real crisis of faith in their midst; the current disconnect of the Church from consistent, ancient Tradition, and less time trying to advance secular, socialist labour union schemes.

    Let workers be free to work where they please for the wage and conditions they deem appropriate, according to their free will, their circumstance, their conscience. That seems Catholic to me. Freedom according to individual conscience is a fundamental right of Man made in God’s image. Compulsion according to elite, secular socialist schemes is not.

  • Standing up for Unions is standing up for SOME workers at the expense of others. It has always been that way. It has always been a ruse to claim that unions speak for workers. Unions were originally started to keep black workers out of the job market and they are very much obstructionist when it comes to ANY kind of parental choice in education.

  • “In fact, the bishops begin their brief with Good Pope Leo—Leo XIII’s 1891 encyclical Rerum Novarum (Of New Things), which put the Church solidly behind unions as essential to defending workers’ rights. And they go on to make clear that in backing organized labor, they have long opposed what’s known as ‘right-to-work’ laws.”

    I notice Mark Silk strongly implies, but does not say, that Rerum Novarum condemns “right-to-work” laws and endorses the “closed shop.” It’s the BISHOPS, not the Popes, who have taken those positions.

    American labor unions are almost entirely corrupt, thuggish, extortionate organizations. They have historically been among the largest financial backers of pro-abortion candidates and the Abortion Party.

    The bishops have put themselves back on the side of America’s most powerful gangsters.

  • And Cardinal Dolan just said about Trump: “Am I ever grateful for his judicial appointments, his pro-life stand, for his solicitude of our schools, for his concern for the plight of persecuted Christians throughout the world, these are things that we’d all say ‘Alleluia.” The only thing the pope ever said when asked about Trump directly is. “We’ll wait and see.”
    What we surely will see “if Pope Francis lives long enough to appoint another few dozen bishops” is more turning away by Church officials from the torture of sex abuse and the lives destroyed.

  • The Pope condemned trump during the campaign trail and he criticized Trump saying it’s not pro life to take away DACA and not support efforts to deal with Climate Change.

    It seems to me that you seem to be someone who critiques the Catholic Church just for the sake of critiquing it rather than having any real position. When the Pope takes a liberal position on someone issues you either attack him by implying he’s being fake, or take a conservative position to counter pose him. When he takes a traditional stance on other issues you attack him as being a reactionary.

    I would like to know what is it that you’d actually like changed in the Church beyond attack Francis and Catholicism just for the sake of attacking them?

  • No one like to have their power or ability to act limited. Since power invariably corrupts, limits must be set and some sort of balance in the workplace achieved. Neither management nor labor have proven to be immune to corruption. Still, labor, given leverage, will serve to balance owner/management power. Government through law and regulation could keep the playing field fair and balanced if it want to. We know it works, given a chance. Unions built the middle class and the collapse of the union movement saw the collapse of the middle class.

  • You will not find a direct quote by the pope naming Trump as mentioned in your first paragraph.
    You will not find a direct quote from me “implying he’s being fake,” “taking a conservative position,” nor “attacking hims as being a reactionary.” You have confused me either with someone else or with other false presumptions you have made.
    I offer accurate information to balance a very dishonest portrayal of the pope and all things Catholic on this website.

  • I notice Mark Silk describes the HHS Abortion Mandate EXACTLY as it was spun by the abortionists. I.e., that the Little Sisters of the Poor objected to “notifying the government” of something.

    The Little Sisters (and many others) objected to PAYING, through their employees’ benefits, for sterilizations, contraceptives, and abortifacients.

    The abortionists (i.e., the Obama administration) pretended that the Little Sisters were objecting to “sending a notification” to the government.

    In short: I notice that Mark Silk passes along the abortionists’ spin.

  • Meaning the facts as given. Somehow signing a waiver and letting employees make their own decisions was such a huge imposition on the alleged religious freedom of The Sisters to impose their will on others.

    You are a lying troll. The Little Sisters objected to signing a waiver and allowing the ACA exchange to cover employees who wanted coverage they were not willing to pay for. They were never going to be paying for birth control. They objected to letting employees make decisions to pay for it themselves.

    If you had a legitimate point to make you would not be misrepresenting facts so obviously and badly.

  • Why care about a group of basically old white guys who belong to a defunct religion, morally, theologically and historically?

  • You do realize that the Government’s case was sent packing by the Supreme Court when the Government’s attorney had to admit they could accomplish providing the coverage sans any action on the part of the Sisters, and the Baptists and others in the consolidated suit, including signing waivers.

    I’ll be happy to provide citations to the actual motions and briefs so you can tie your comments on the matter to reality instead of whatever it is you’re relying on now.

  • You are lying here again. SCOTUS punted. Knocking it back down to the Appellate Court which found against the Sisters. They upheld the prior judgment by refusing to hear an appeal.

  • So you like the benefits of organized labor, (living wages, healthcare, reasonable work hours, vacation time, safe work conditions…) but none of the responsibility it entails. Either that or you oppose such benefits and seek to reduce employment to glorified peonage.

    “when it comes to ANY kind of parental choice in education.”

    You have always had choices. You just never had the option of forcing others to pay for them. “School choice” is a euphemism for attacking public education and enriching cronies in corrupt privatization schemes. A very cretinous position.

  • I love fantasy writing, which includes your legal synopsis.

    The Supreme Court vacated the lower court’s ruling:

    http://www.supremecourt.gov/opinions/15pdf/14-1418_8758.pdf

    That means the district court’s prior decision was made null and void. No need to “hear an appeal”.

    The reason why was that the lower courts relied on misinformation given by the Government to the courts in this and the related cases. That misinformation consisted of the assertion that the Government could not accomplish its purpose without the Sisters’ cooperation.

    That turned out to be utter hogwash, and the Government admitted it.

  • The decision of the district court was vacated. Period.

    Since there was an election and the Government had admitted essentially fabricating a fact, things ceased moving.

    The new president issued an executive order unwinding the slyly contrived infringements of the previous administration:

    https://www.whitehouse.gov/the-press-office/2017/05/04/presidential-executive-order-promoting-free-speech-and-religious-liberty

    As YOUR url informs us:

    “The mandate as defined by the previous administration suffered defeats in court after court, including the Supreme Court, which ruled that the government cannot punish business owners for their faith.”

  • Have you read the new directive? It doesn’t remove the contraceptive mandate nor the ability for employees to seek it on their own.

  • Apparently you never actually became familiar with the case.

    It was the Obama Administration’s insistence that the employees could not seek it on their own but had to be referred by their employer that wound up in the Supreme Court.

    The Court directed the parties to supplement their briefs, at which point the Government admitted that – after all the litigation – the end could be accomplished by employees directly without the employers’ assistance.

    If this the level of understanding of legal matters you possess, you really need to refrain from opining.

    And stop reading Planned Parenthood and ACLU comic books.

  • It was the entire notion of letting employees seek it on their own which the Sisters objected to. Somehow signing a waiver constituted a grave attack on their religious beliefs. /s

    In the end the Little Sister’s alleged objections were rendered meaningless. Much like how Hobby Lobby has been neutered by legislative and executive changes.

  • You really have zero idea of what transpired in the case, do you?

    http://www.scotusblog.com/case-files/cases/little-sisters-of-the-poor-home-for-the-aged-v-burwell/

    “Holding: Because both the Obama administration and the religious non-profits, colleges, and schools challenging the accommodation offered to those who object to complying with the Affordable Care Act’s birth control mandate confirm that contraceptive coverage could be provided to the challengers’ female employees, through the challengers’ insurance companies, without any notice from the challengers, the decisions of the courts of appeals rejecting the challenge are vacated and remanded.”

    In the request for a Supreme Court hearing:

    http://www.scotusblog.com/wp-content/uploads/2015/08/2015-07-23-LSP-RSI-Petition_Final.pdf

    the Sisters object to “a regulatory mechanism through which they must execute documents that authorize and obligate third parties to use their healthcare plans to facilitate the provision of contraceptive coverage to their employees”, not to their employees obtaining contraceptive coverage.

    It was compelling the sisters to provide this notice that created the objection. Once the government admitted it could allow employees to deal directly with the insurance companies – CONTRARY TO WHAT THE OBAMA ADMINISTRATION HAD CONSISTENTLY ALLEGED – the case folded.

    Do spend a few minutes familiarizing yourself with the facts.

    AT NO POINT IN ITS CASE DID THE SISTERS ATTEMPT TO PREVENT EMPLOYEES FROM OBTAINING COVERAGE. You have stated otherwise several times and you are completely in error.

    It is also worth noting that several others contested the Obama Administration’s attempt to violate their rights of conscience as Zubik v. Burwell, Priests for Life v. Burwell, Geneva College v. Burwell, Roman Catholic Archbishop of Washington v. Burwell, East Texas Baptist University v. Burwell, and were all combined with the Little Sisters of the Poor Home for the Aged v. Burwell case for hearing before the Court.

  • You haven’t been very good (or honest) with quoting court cases so far. Why start now?

    “Other non-profit organizations that object to any required contraception coverage could file an EBSA form 700 with their insurance company notifying them of the non-profit’s objection”

    “The Little Sisters of the Poor, a Roman Catholic religious order, runs over 25 homes for low-income elderly in the United States and therefore is not automatically exempt from the contraceptive mandate. It objected to filing Form 700″

    “Because the Petitioners agreed that “their religious exercise is not
    infringed where they ‘need to do nothing more than contract for a plan that does not include coverage for some or all forms of contraception'”, the Court held that the parties should be given an opportunity to clarify and refine how this approach would work in practice and to “resolve any outstanding issues”

    https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Zubik_v._Burwell

    The October 2017 HHS directive uses all the language which appeals to the religious exemptions but none of the substance of the Little Sister’s objections in the case.

  • I provided you access to the entire set of documents, from initial filing with the Supreme Court, to the final disposition.

    I also provided quotes from the actual documents filed. If you believe I “haven’t been very good (or honest) with quoting court cases so far”, you’ve been placed in a perfect position to demonstrate that by citing actual documents.

    The fact that you respond with a Wikipedia article pretty much sums up your acumen on the issues raised in the case.

    The reference to “clarify and refine how this approach would work” refers to the Sisters, and the other organizations, NOT filing Form 700 (this approach), which the Government finally admitted was completely unnecessary after litigating it through the courts, and which was the substance of the Little Sister’s objections in the case.

  • You had one quote where you missed the entire point because you didn’t understand a key word.

    One which refuted your argument and reference in the last sentence of the decision.

    Now you lie about the arguments used by one of the parties.

    You are zero for three. 🙂

  • Money is fungible. The Obama “compromise” offered the Little Sisters the opportunity to pay for abortions out of their left pocket instead of their right pocket.

  • You are lying like a cheap rug. In no way were they paying for anything of the sort. Their objection was to letting employees obtain their own health insurance.

    In no way is signing a waiver and letting employees make their own decision an which invokes religious objection. Religious expression does not extend to making determinations for the lives of others. The Little Sisters thought their religious beliefs overrode any decisions concerning the lives of those working under them. Even when it cost them nothing.

    The Obama compromise was entirely reasonable if one’s religious objections were genuine. But in reality it was all just a political circus to attack the ACA by any means necessary.

  • I notice you don’t provide the quote. I notice you did not mention the “key word”.

    I notice you fail to provide “one which refuted (my) argument”.

    I notice you also fail to tell what “lie” was told about the arguments.

    I notice you don’t know what you’re talking about, that you’ve been posting your erroneous version of the case for quite a long time, and that you simply disregard the actual briefs and orders.

  • Denial is all you have left. Every court case you have quoted, I pointed out where you got it wrong.

    The next time you quote a court decision accurately and honestly will be your first one. 🙂

  • Unless you can actually show where I misquoted, I’ll file this under “Sputter from Spuddie”.

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