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Catholic bishops side with labor unions in Supreme Court case

A general view of the U.S. Supreme Court building in Washington on Dec. 5, 2004. Photo courtesy of Creative Commons/Duncan Lock

WASHINGTON (RNS) — U.S. Roman Catholic bishops are backing public sector unions in an upcoming Supreme Court case, pitting church leaders against the Trump administration and conservatives in a legal battle over how organized labor is financed.

In an amicus brief filed on Friday (Jan. 19) in the case of Janus v. American Federation of State, County, and Municipal Employees, the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops sides with the union, which is being challenged by the State of Illinois over its right to collect money from nonmembers for collective bargaining.

The bishops equated the effect of a ruling against the unions to the landmark high court decisions, Roe v. Wade and Obergefell v. Hodges, which respectively legalized abortion and same-sex marriage.


RELATED: It’s time to reclaim the pro-worker history of Catholic social teaching


A judgment against AFSCME, the brief says, “would represent another unfortunate decision of this Court that marginalizes the voice of the bishops with respect to an important public policy debate by declaring their position to lie beyond the constitutional pale.”

AFSCME, the nation’s largest union of public employees, argues that it needs nonmembers to pay “fair-share fees” to manage the costs of representing all employees in collective bargaining, as they are legally allowed to do, according to the 1977 ruling Abood v. Detroit Board of Education.

The Trump administration’s Office of Solicitor General and conservative groups including the Becket Fund for Religious Liberty have filed briefs in support of overruling the Abood decision, agreeing with the plaintiff that the fees are an infringement on free speech.

The bishops note their longstanding opposition to “right-to-work” legislation, which doesn’t allow employees to be charged for union representation they didn’t ask for, even if they might benefit from it.

In their amicus brief, the current bishops pointed to various papal statements and encyclicals in support of labor rights dating back to 1891’s Rerum novarum, issued by Pope Leo XIII. Pope Francis is also cited in a footnote, specifically a June 2017 address in which he told delegates from the Confederation of Trade Unions in Italy, “There is no good society without a good union, and there is no good union that is not reborn every day in the peripheries, that does not transform the discarded stones of the economy into its cornerstones.”

The Catholic Church’s historical pro-labor stance included then bishops’ opposition to the 1947 Taft-Hartley Act, which authorized states to pass “right-to-work” laws.

Despite this history, the latest brief is something of a shift: bishops did not file a brief in a case that dealt with almost the exact same issue roughly two years ago, Friedrichs v. California Teachers Association. President Barack Obama’s U.S. Office of Solicitor General sided with unions in that case, which it resulted in a 4-4 stalemate a the Supreme Court in 2016 — just a few months after the death of Justice Antonin Scalia, who was expected to rule against the labor unions.

Oral arguments for Janus v. American Federation of State, County, and Municipal Employees are scheduled for February 28.

About the author

Jack Jenkins

Jack Jenkins is a national reporter for RNS based in Washington, covering U.S. Catholics and the intersection of religion and politics.

52 Comments

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  • When I was an active trade unionist (in the 1970s) we sought a closed shop in the following manner.

    All new employees to be advised that they would have a sum equivalent to their union dues deducted by the employer – the union having been granted sole bargaining rights by an overwhelming majority of the employees in a vote conducted by an independent third party.

    The new employees would have the following options

    1 – have the deduction paid to the union and become a union member.
    2 – have the deduction paid to the union but not become a member
    3 – have the deduction paid into a charitable account with the employer and the trade union alternately deciding on the recipient.

    Existing employees to have a fourth – no deduction and no membership

    We had an agreement for automatic arbitration after two failures to agree and would have supported either/or arbitration.

    Didn’t happen but I still think it represented a reasonable way to handle the problem of freeloader employees riding on the backs of their colleagues.

  • It’s all political. The Catholic bishops are simply trying to appeal to the only justice whose vote they’re not sure of, Gorsuch and his Catholic upbringing. You would think they’re better then this, but they must be on the public sector union payroll as well.

  • A fundamental tenet of our Faith is free will.

    A fundamental tenet of Labour Unions is compulsion.

    This case solidifies organized compulsory power over the individual.

    It is odious that our Bishops would support compulsory participation in Labour Unions that are, at times, some of the greatest agents of moral evil in our society. Either way, this is a matter of conscience and it is regrettable our shepherds have decided to override our conscience rights in this case.

  • You are perhaps ignoring a crucial difference. One, typically, is not free to not join a union in certain quarters if one wants employment.

    On the other hand, by virtue of accepting the status of citizen of these United States, one freely assents to abide by lawful elections.

  • The way to avoid “another unfortunate decision of this Court that marginalizes the voice of the bishops with respect to an important public policy debate by declaring their position to lie beyond the constitutional pale” is for the bishops to restrict their comments to matters within their competence about which few reasonable people would disagree.

  • The way to handle “freeloader employees riding on the backs of their colleagues” is for unions to step out of their roles as toadies for the left of the Democratic Party, funders of idiots for office, and pontificators on matters of social design, and stick to what they are supposed to be – representatives of the workers in negotiating with the employer.

    As to “an overwhelming majority of the employees”, that requires a truly neutral third party and an actual “overwhelming majority” that produces a credible result.

  • We are NOT required by the Constitution to be members of a Labour Union, or any other group. The 1 A guarantees freedom of association: pariticipate or not; expand or disband. Personal conscience, choice, liberty.

    We ARE required by the Constitution, as a condition of citizenship, to accept our duly elected government. No choice there.

    The Teamsters, AFL-CIO (etc) are voluntary labor groups. Our duly elected government is not voluntary.

    So, no. Two completely different things. Union membership is not comparable to national citizenship.

  • Another way (to handle “freeloaders”) is to vote out union representation. Then they don’t have to worry about all the “heavy lifting”, or the heavy dues they command.

    Workers are tired of the scolding and the Big Labour Democrat politics, which is why membership is withering away.

  • Ah, the Catholic bishops. Still offering their opinions on every social question under the sun. Still not preaching the gospel. They can all go take a long leap off a short pier.

  • So you oppose denying goods, services and access to government offices and licensed on the basis of religious beliefs of the provider?

    That is compulsion as well, forcing people to abide by the tenets of your faith.

    Somehow I doubt it. I think your objection here is only that you are being compelled, not being the one doing it.

  • How is this different from paying taxes?

    When you are a citizen, you get benefits, rights, and obligations. Therefore you are required to share the costs. My taxes go to things that I do not use or even want, that is part of being in a city, county, state or nation. Unions provide benefits and protection against excesses of employers and corporate lawyers. Yes, there are parts of the union I do not agree just as with any organization that I am a part of and expect assistance from in times of need. However, you can voice your opinion and change those things that you do not like. Those working folks who are against unions are being played by corporate interests and their lackeys. Union shops have much more benefits and job security then the shops in the so called “right to work” states. Funny many of the original right to work states fought a war to preserve slavery and often have the highest rates of poverty and lower standards of living overall.

  • The bishops are right on this issue. Employees who do not belong to the union nonetheless benefit from the union’s work on behalf of all workers.

  • I do not know this Catholic Church … they should be more concerned with the exodus of the faithful … maybe they would start to understand the faithful did not leave the Catholic Church so much as the Catholic Church left them….

  • Aqua, your argument makes no sense. By law, nobody is forced to join a union. However, unions are forced by law to bargain for and afford full member benefits to non-members. The conservative Warren court unanimously decided that unions may charge non-members who they are forced to represent a fair share agency fee to cover the costs of collective bargaining, legal assistance, administration of benefits, and training given by the unions. It’s only about a third of the dues paid by members. Not one cent goes towards union executives or anything political. All political activities are from voluntary donations only or volunteer work.

    The Janus case is based on the lie that free speech for monmembers is being violated, and they shouldn’t pay a cent towards their fair share, and that non members should be able to freeload. If Mr. Janus or any other public employee didn’t want to join a union or pay their fair share as nonmembers, then they should have applied for employment in the same job in the private sector.

    This case is being funded by the Koch Brothers, and is another attack on our democratic.

  • Unions endorse Democrats because for over 40 years, Republicans have been trying to outlaw unions. Their members aren’t forced to vote as their unions recommend.

  • What, exactly, is ‘simply not true?’

    If someone, say, has needed to work and has ‘x’ skills to support her or his family, it is well known that in certain periods and places the only way one could obtain gainful employment to use those skills would be to ‘join’ the union controlling such access.

    You are merely playing with words and ignoring the fact that any form of coercion lessens voluntariness, and thus hampers choice.

  • Are you kidding? The Catholic Church has sued the government many times contending that liberal policies, including the ACA infringed on their freedoms of free speech, religion and free association. The Catholic bishops have excoriated Democratic politicians who are pro choice. The Democratic party has been the Church’s target since Roe v. Wade.

  • Nothing to do with lawsuits. Everything to do with $$. Always follow the money. Begin with Catholic Charities.

  • Ok, I remember a guy named Lech Walesa, President of the Solidarność trade union in Poland. Allie of Ronald Regan and John Paul II.
    How was this detrimental to anyone’s soul?

  • There is nothing in our Constitution that requires the existence of Unions or our participation in them; neither is there in Catholic Tradition. It is not excluded, nor is it compelled. Unions are voluntary. Our nation will be just fine without them.

    Paying taxes and abiding by duly elected laws; submitting to our duly elected government is required by our constitution, is a condition of citizenship and is also supported by Catholic Tradition. Our nation does not exist without them.

    The union business model is based on compulsion and intimidation. It has always been so. And in a nation of freedom, individuals are choosing “right to work” over union compulsion. Unions are dying because people choose freedom over compulsion.

    Bishops should instinctively support their flocks’ conscience rights against those who would compel their views over our Catholic conscience. Instead, it is our secular President who defends our fundamental conscience rights to withdraw.

  • That is why union membership is declining and Right To Work States are taking business away from closed union shops. Free America is voting with their lives and their money. No to union compulsion. Yes to individual freedom.

    Either way, it seems a fundamental “tenet” of our Catholic faith to advocate for the faithful to be free to abstain from activities they find objectionable; to not be required to pay for those (possibly immoral) activities as a condition of employment.

    Regardless of the secular American political argument, the Catholic argument is what I advance here. Our Shepherds should defend their flocks from being required to participate in, or to pay for others to do so, activities that they find morally objectionable. Instead, they take the side of secular, possibly immoral compulsion against a properly formed conscience.

  • Unions should be apolitical. They should not be in the business of political endorsement. Collective bargaining is inherently apolitical. Politics is the core of Big Labour’s problem. Politics is why conscience sensibilities are offended by union dues participation; why people go to great lengths and sacrifice to withdraw.

    Remove the political element, and all you have left is the Collective Bargaining element. Most people can agree on that.

  • Many people are making that choice. Leaving for other jobs, decertifying the workplace, moving to “right to work states”, etc. Union membership is declining. That is why Unions are tied so tightly to Democrat politics (and USCCB?). They need each other, just to survive.

    There are just 14.6 million union members in America today. Half of those live in 7 States. 43 States contain just 7 million union members (total population is 325 million) . That is 10.7% total labor force union participation rate, the lowest ever recorded.

    Economic growth and innovation is in “Right To Work” States.

    Decline, stagnation and debt (mostly pension) is in the 7 largest “union States”, mentioned above (NY, NJ, IL, PA, OH, CA, MI).

    Unions overrate their collective bargaining advantage, and underreport their political advocacy. People do just fine in their careers without them. People do just fine in their political views without them, too.

  • Who the hell are you to say that unions should be apolitical? As long as Republicans attack unions, the unions have the right and the obligation to be political. Despite 40 years of lies from right wingers, not one cent of union dues goes towards political activity. Only voluntary contributions may be used. That has been federal law for 70+ years. If Janus or any other agency fee payer refuses to donate, they don’t have to.

  • It’s fine if they are political. It is not fine to force people to fund their political activity. Let them rise or fall with voluntary contributions like the rest of us; not compulsory contributions as a condition of employment.

    Your assertion that dues money is not used to pay for politics is incorrect. Dues money is used. PAC money is also used. Unions are the primary base of Democrat politics. Money drives that, including dues.

    It is common sense to let individuals decline to participate in that if they choose. It is un-American to force workers to support a political agenda as a condition of employment.

    Better if they just stick to collectively bargaining for their membership. They seem to have lost focus on that part of their mission, as reflected by their declining successes and membership. They are stuck in 1930, while corporate America is well into the next century running circles around them.

  • I thought the election of “conservative” Abp. Naumann was supposed to bode well for USCCB. This shows what a false narrative it was. They might as well have chosen Cupich, for all the difference it makes.

  • Only someone ignorant of real Union activities, or someone who benefits from their schemes, could state such a thing.

  • Allow me to correct you, since you are completely wrong. No one “elected” any Union to represent them and even in those cases where they are newly formed and claim such legitimacy, they use intimidation and coercion to force people to vote for them. This is well documented.
    Regarding the lawful election process and our president, you sound just like a traitor. If you are, just come out and say so. The American people are ready to deal with you.

  • As someone who was forced to pay dues from a scant paycheck to a corrupt union for many years, I consider your lies more than offensive. At no time did the union lift a finger on my behalf, but instead used my dues to support politicians and policies abhorrent to me. I can only guess that YOU collect a paycheck from union dues.

  • You are wrong. Closed shop legislation compels all employees to pay dues to the union with a CBA. You may think that isn’t the same as forcing people to “join” but that is pure sophistry. There is no ethical reason why a worker should be forced to pay a tribute to be employed.

  • “There is no ethical reason why a worker should be forced to pay a tribute to be employed.”

    I disagree – see my original comment.

  • Fortunately I’ve never had the need to earn a living in the USA.

    “As to “an overwhelming majority of the employees”, that requires a truly neutral third party and an actual “overwhelming majority” that produces a credible result”

    My recollection is that the ballot was administered by The Electoral Society and the result was something in the region of 58 – 42.

  • Wrong. Nobody is forced to fund political activities. That has been the law ever since Taft-Hartley went into effect. Agency fees only go towards the costs of representing nonmembers, since Taft-Hartley forces unions to give full representation to nonmembers.

  • According to Office of Labour Management Standards (OLMS), AFL-CIO spends their 188,000,000 annual dues dollar (not PAC) in the following proportions in 2015:

    1: Political activities and lobbying – 24%
    2: Representation – 16%
    3: Salaries – 15%
    4: Overhead – 11%
    5: Administration – 3%
    6: Misc

    Of the political spending, AFL – CIO donated 93% to Ds. 7% to Rs.

    They are the worst. Other unions have similar allocations of their dues dollars. That is just a fact. You can easily look it up. Political activities and lobbying is a major component of dues dollar spending. And almost all of it goes to the Democrat Party.

  • I read your original comment. I disagree.

    It would appear that more people agree with Pearl187 in regards to “tribute” since union membership is collapsing, than with you and your compulsory “deductions”.

    Voluntary associations are one thing. Compulsory associations as a condition of employment are another. Your reference to “freeloaders” is a great example why Unions are falling out of favor. Create a product that people want – they join willingly. But if the product is no good, fix it! Don’t make it mandatory. Only a socialist mindset would compel others to use it / participate in it against their will and blame the customer (dues paying worker) for their complaints.

    Unions are stuck in the Taft – Hartley 1930s, with pitchforks and baseball bats; typewriters, megaphones and assembly flyers; and an inadequate negotiating strategy; while corporate America and the next generation of workers are flying away over the 21st century horizon.

  • I don’t give a rat’s ass what YOU disagree with and, no, I WON’T see your “comment”. My opinion remains and it is informed and well-considered. Leftist footpads need not spout their foolishness to me. I have no use for your moronic drivel. If you think American workers are rightfully subject to slavery by union thugs, you ought to be deported.

  • By refusing to read my comment you have created a non-response which is irrelevant, petty, ill-informed and redolent of kindergarten-playground aggression.

  • I am offering my experience as an elected negotiator and national conference delegate with one union, in the UK, in the 1970s.

    My experience may, or may not, be relevant to the current US situation. I offer it as a discussion point.

    PS – Practical Socialism (as opposed to Communism) works. A statement I support as follows –

    The best working conditions, the best public health care, the best social support for children etc. is found in countries most Americans have been taught to deride as “Socialist”.

    The US (compared with first world “socialist” countries) shows poorly on the lists for such things as the rich/poor divide, under-five mortality rate and maternity/paternity leave (The United States, Suriname, Papua New Guinea, and several island countries in the Pacific Ocean are the only countries that do not require employers to provide paid time off for new parents.[6], “Wikipedia”).

    The numpty-in-charge favours immigration from Norway.

  • You can have British style socialism.

    I’ll stick with the world’s engine of prosperity: American style capitalism.

    People aren’t busting down doors to get into U.K. It’s America and our prosperity … our freedom … the world wants.

  • All of the spending on political activity is from voluntary contributions from members. Those who don’t wish to contribute don’t have to. The reason why most unions support Democrats is because Republicans aim to destroy unions. A union supporting a Republican would be like a Jew supporting Nazis, or an African American supporting the KKK..

  • That is crazy talk. And not supported by facts.

    Re-read my previous post on dues dollars that fund political activity. It is public record.

    The last half of your “opinion” is simply insane.

  • Capitalism existed prior to the USA – what do you think funded the pre- (and post-) 1492 explorations.

    As to being the world’s engine of prosperity – get up-to-date.

    Currently the US is moving to an isolationist position – not so much make America great as make it lonely.

    International trade deals are still being done – but without the US.
    Major economies are being targeted with protectionist tariffs.
    Twitter has become a means of insulting and repelling those who are the US’s historic political and economic allies.
    International agreements are being repudiated for suicidal, short-term profit.

    As to your freedom – it’s largely illusory isn’t it. If you want to glory in the freedom to be poor, to be in thrall to superstitious belief, to be unable to get decent healthcare without risking bankruptcy and you want to live in an environment where murderous mass shootings occur almost daily – you’re welcome to it. The sad fact is that, for many people, the image of life in the US seems better than their present circumstances (even sadder – for some it undoubtedly is) but few Europeans would swap other than for career based reasons whilst many Americans happily live and work in Europe.

    I enjoy visiting the US, just as our American cousins enjoy visiting the UK; it doesn’t mean that they, or we, want to move across the pond.

  • It is completely supported by facts. Your opinion is just warped by your anti-union prejudice and ignorance.

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