As Supreme Court decides fate of unions, bishops speak up

US Supreme Court. CNA.
US Supreme Court. CNA.

.- With the U.S. Supreme Court hearing a case that could have a great impact on the future of public sector unions, the U.S. bishops have filed an amicus brief citing Pope Benedict XVI in opposition to “right-to-work” arguments.

The Office of General Counsel of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops’ brief, filed Jan. 19, cited Benedict XVI’s 2009 encyclical Caritas in Veritate which invoked repeated papal calls since Leo XIII’s encyclical Rerum Novarum to promote “workers’ associations that can defend their rights.” Benedict’s same encyclical criticizes limits on unions’ freedom and negotiating capacity.

The brief cited the Church’s strong commitments to protect both the poor and vulnerable from exploitation, and to protect the right of association from governmental infringement. It invoked Catholic bishops’ historic, consistent support for workers’ rights to organize and bargain collectively.

“Because this right is substantially weakened by so-called ‘right-to-work’ laws, many bishops—in their dioceses, through their state conferences, and through their national conference—have opposed or cast doubt on such laws, and no U.S. bishop has expressed support for them,” said the brief.

The brief comes in response to the court case of Mark Janus, an Illinois state employee who is suing the American Federation of State County and Municipal Employees (AFSCME). Drawing on “right-to-work” arguments, he contends that mandatory “agency fees” paid to the union for contract negotiations violate his free speech because the union takes actions with which he does not agree, the Washington Post reports.

These fees are not used for political purposes, but his lawyers argue that the unions’ lobbying efforts are political acts.

“I enjoy my job and want to serve my state; public service is part of who I am. But I don’t want to pay a union to do so,” Janus said in a Feb. 26 essay in USA Today.

He said the union uses his monthly fees “to promote an agenda I don’t support,” objecting to the legislation supported by the union’s lobbying arm and politicians supported by its political arm.

Janus is being represented by the Liberty Justice Center and the National Right to Work Legal Defense Foundation. His case also has the support of the Becket Fund, whose own amicus brief argues that allowing government workers to opt-out of mandatory union payments protects their freedom of speech and religious freedom.

The bishops’ brief, however, said the lawsuit asks the court to constitutionalize the “right-to-work” position in the public sector “instantly, without exception, for all fifty states, almost irreversibly.”

The lawsuit appears designed to lay the foundation to implement “right-to-work” in the private sector as well, the brief charged. It advocated that the court leave “constitutional space” for the public policy position supported “for so long by so many bishops and bishop-led institutions” rather than “declare still another such position outside the bounds of what policymakers are permitted to implement by law.”

The bishops’ brief said such a declaration would be comparable in effect to the 2015 decision requiring states to recognize same-sex unions as marriages, or to the 1973 Roe v. Wade decision barring states from implementing restrictions on abortion.

Right-to-work laws eliminate the clauses that prevent “free riders,” who benefit from union contracts without paying for union membership. Such a position “dramatically weakens” unions and their bargaining power on workers’ behalf, the brief objected.

Bishop Thomas J. Paprocki of Springfield, Ill. objected to some news coverage of the case that depicted the legal brief as a position adopted by the U.S. bishops.

“In fact, no vote was taken on whether to file such a brief,” he said Feb. 13. “While church teaching clearly supports freedom of association and the right to form and join a union, it does not mandate coercing people to join a union or pay dues against their will.”

The fact that Bishop Paprocki and other bishops have not voiced support for “right to work” laws “does not necessarily or logically imply support for litigation opposing ‘right to work’ laws,” he said. Neither has he voiced support for litigation in opposition to mandatory union dues.
 
“At most, the lack of any statement favoring either side should imply neutrality,” he said.

For Paprocki, the question of whether rights of association and free speech are helped or hurt by mandatory dues is “a matter of prudential judgment on which reasonable people can disagree as to whether the rights of association and free speech are helped or hindered by mandatory union dues.”

However, Bishop David Zubik of Pittsburgh was critical of the suit, citing American Catholics’ traditional support for unions.

He praised the role of unions, saying they help raise wages, bring family benefits, ensure worker safety, and help keep workers from being exploited. These benefits arise even for people do not belong to unions.

Writing in a Feb. 19 column in the Pittsburgh Catholic, he said “I don’t agree with every position taken by every labor union. But I believe — as the Catholic bishops of this country have long believed — that unions benefit society as a whole. Like all human institutions, they are flawed. Their own rank-and-file, however, are empowered to reform them. When a beneficial institution is flawed, we should seek to fix it, not destroy it.”

“I urge any Catholic union member to push for reform of union policies that may occasionally be unjust or wrong-headed,” he said. “That’s democracy at work. But if the Supreme Court rules that union political advocacy violates the free speech rights of someone who has agreed to a union job, that ruling will threaten any organization that takes a stand on any issue.”

“The man who brought the lawsuit took a union job, agreed to the union terms, and then sued on free speech grounds because he objected to the union’s political positions,” Bishop Zubik continued. “It’s similar to someone who has taken a job in the Catholic Church arguing that he should be allowed to keep his job while also publicly advocating for abortion. He knew the terms of employment when he accepted them.”

CNA sought comment from the U.S. bishops’ conference and Bishop Paprocki. The bishop was unavailable, while the bishops’ conference did not respond.

Tags: US Bishops, Catholic News, Supreme Court, Unions