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Church Institutions and the Rights of Workers

By Msgr. George G. Higgins

The Yard Stick
October 23, 2000
 A reader who in general agrees with my stand on labor-management issues complained in a recent letter that I lack the "fortitude" or "courage" to criticize Catholic institutions that interfere with the right of their workers to organize. I didn't know whether to laugh or cry about this curious complaint. The fact is, I have written numerous columns and articles on this subject, and have intervened on the side of workers in a number of labor-management disputes in Catholic schools and hospitals. I have scars to show for this.

 In any event, the letter suggests it may be timely to summarize what I have said repeatedly here and in other venues on the right of workers in Catholic institutions to organize.

 Let me begin with two pertinent quotes from church documents:

 "The church ... recognizes that anyone who ventures to speak to people about justice must first be just in their eyes" (Synod of Bishops, 1971).

 "All the moral principles that govern the just operation of any economic endeavor apply to the church and its agencies and institutions; indeed, the church should be exemplary" (National Conference of Catholic Bishops, 1986).

 Pronouncements such as these point to a relatively recent development in Catholic social teaching. The church has a long history of speaking out on social problems and issues of justice and peace. Yet only in more recent times has the church made clear that these teachings apply to the workings of its own institutions.

 The fact that the church itself has labor problems should come as no surprise. For the most part, church-related institutions have had relatively little experience with unions. When American Catholicism was in its "bricks-and-mortar" period, raising up schools and hospitals and charities at an astonishing pace, the labor movement was busy organizing the industrial workplace. Only in more recent years have unions taken an interest in nonprofit institutions.

 Partly for this reason, many Catholic institutions have not yet reconciled themselves to the existence of "third parties" in their institutions. The right to organize and bargain collectively in Catholic institutions, and the propriety of doing so, have yet to be universally acknowledged.

 A number of Catholic institutions are facing up to the church's labor problem realistically and constructively. They seem prepared to negotiate in good faith with a bona fide union if their employees freely choose to organize. However, they are nervous about this possibility. They fear, among other things, that unions will create an "adversarial relationship" between labor and management, making it difficult if not impossible to nurture a Gospel-oriented spirit of Christian community in these institutions.

 At least one prominent theologian who shares this concern has argued that the patterns of unionism with which we are familiar from secular life might tend to erode values of generosity and self-sacrifice, and thus weaken the spirit of Christian community in our Catholic institutions. If he is referring here to priests and nuns, I would agree with him. I would not agree, however, that the same applies to rank-and-file lay employees who organize for the purpose of collective bargaining.

 In summary, a Christian community which fails to respect the dignity of its own employees is a contradiction in terms -- or, in any event, will be perceived as such by its disaffected workers. This is not to say workers must belong to a union to have a sense of their own dignity. It is to say, however, that their right to organize must be respected.

 Wherever the free exercise of this right is thwarted or obstructed, there can be no such thing as a genuine Christian community.

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