After initial suspicions in the 19th century, Pope Leo XIII wrote in support of unions in his 1891 encyclical On the Condition of Labor. In the United States, the Church saw supporting unions as one practical way of helping the many Catholic immigrant families who had members working in industrial jobs. Pittsburgh’s Msgr. Charles Owen Rice was one of many “labor priests” of the 1930s and following decades.
As many Catholics have moved to the middle class or professional status, some of our practical commitment to labor rights seems to have waned. But the principles underlying the Church’s support of workers remain and, if anything, the need for commitment to them seems to have increased.
Here is how Pope Benedict put it in his 2009 encyclical, Charity in Truth: “Through the combination of social and economic change, trade union organizations experience greater difficulty in carrying out their task of representing the interests of workers, partly because Governments, for reasons of economic utility, often limit the freedom or the negotiating capacity of labor unions. . . . The repeated calls issued within the Church's social doctrine, beginning with Rerum Novarum, for the promotion of workers' associations that can defend their rights must therefore be honored today even more than in the past, as a prompt and far-sighted response to the urgent need for new forms of cooperation at the international level, as well as the local level.” (no. 25)
The words of the U.S. bishops in their 1986 letter Economic Justice for All have lost none of their urgency: “No one may deny the right to organize without attacking human dignity itself. Therefore, we firmly oppose organized efforts, such as those regrettably now seen in this country, to break existing unions and prevent workers from organizing.” (no. 104)
I have been surprised to learn that many Catholics are unaware of this teaching. Are you?