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Strange Solidarity

Catholic bishops’ support for AFSCME in a Supreme Court case makes little legal or moral sense. April 10, 2018
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One of the highly watched cases of the Supreme Court’s current session, Janus v. American Federation of State, County, and Municipal Employees, Council 31, has sparked such passion that some 73 interested parties have filed amicus briefs in the matter. Among the most unusual is a brief by the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops urging the court to rule against Mark Janus, an Illinois state employee who claims that a law requiring him to pay AFSCME an “agency” fee violates his rights. In an unusual move, a prominent bishop, Thomas John Paprocki of the Diocese of Springfield, Illinois, has publicly disavowed the conference’s position, arguing that no consensus exists among Catholics regarding an issue “on which reasonable people can disagree.” Several Catholic scholars have also contested the bishops’ arguments, especially the prelates’ startling suggestion that a ruling for Janus would “marginalize” the church’s voice on public-policy debates in the same way that the Court’s decisions on abortion and same-sex marriage have done. The Court heard arguments in Janus on February 26 and will issue a ruling before the end of its term in June.

A social worker, Janus has sued to overturn a state law requiring him to pay AFSCME a fee to represent him, even though he had declined to join the union. He has asked the court to reverse a 1977 decision, Abood v. Detroit Federation of Teachers, which upheld state laws that give government unions the right to collect fees from nonmembers in a workplace where collective bargaining is in place. Janus contends that the activities of a government union, including collective bargaining, are political by their very nature, and that the union fee compels him to finance ideas with which he disagrees. If Janus prevails, it would likely mean the institution of right-to-work laws—prohibiting labor unions and employers from making union membership a condition of employment—across the public sector in the United States.

The bishops’ brief begins by citing the Catholic Church’s longstanding “commitment to protect both the poor and vulnerable from exploitation.” Unions, the brief observes, accomplish those aims by defending worker rights. In America, the church has a long history of supporting private labor unions, especially those composed of immigrant Catholic workers, such as the nineteenth-century Knights of Labor. At a time when many within the Church feared unions as “secret societies,” Baltimore Cardinal James Gibbons, a staunch supporter of the Knights, is thought to have persuaded the Vatican that unions could be instrumental in Church efforts to help the poor. Pope Leo XIII subsequently defended unions in his 1891 encyclical Rerum Novarum. “To enter into a ‘society’ of this kind is the natural right of man,” he maintained.

The Janus case, however, applies only to public-sector unions. Janus’s fundamental argument is that, unlike dues paid by a worker to a private union to support bargaining between laborers and an employer, the fees that he must pay “subsidize AFSCME’s efforts to compel the State of Illinois to bend to the union’s will.” That makes the act of collective bargaining political in nature, as Supreme Court Justice Samuel Alito observed in Knox v. SEIU: “[A] public-sector union takes many positions during collective bargaining that have powerful political and civic consequences.”

The bishops justify their interest in Janus by contending that the lawsuit is somehow meant to “lay the foundation” for extending right-to-work nationally to private-sector unions—a dubious claim for which the brief offers no legal rationale. Bradley Lewis, a political philosopher at the Catholic University of America, observes that while the bishops’ brief “cites many passages in classic [social] encyclicals . . . none of them refer to public-sector unions nor do they concern mandatory agency fees.”

What seems like the bishops’ effort to bend over backward to support AFSCME rankles critics like Bishop Paprocki because government unions are among the most socially liberal labor organizations, using their considerable resources—generated by compelled dues—to fight against the church on issues that have little to do with representing workers. “I don’t know specifically what Janus’ objections are regarding the union’s political work, but the public-sector union supports abortion and donates to Planned Parenthood,” Paprocki has said. In 2014, the union gave $400,000 to the organization’s PAC, which works to elect pro-abortion candidates.

The Catholic bishops surely know that teachers’ unions around the country have opposed programs that would provide children with vouchers to attend Catholic schools. And government unions have been significant contributors to campaigns to oppose traditional definitions of marriage and promote same-sex unions, including their opposition to Proposition 8, a 2008 California referendum that sought to define marriage as between a man and a woman. The bishops’ most controversial argument is that if the court rules in favor of Janus, it would “constitutionalize” the issue of agency fees, meaning that it would foreclose further debates in the states on the issue. The bishops complain that the court has already done something similar in Roe v. Wade, which disallowed many state restrictions on abortion, and in Obergefell v. Hodges, which declared same-sex marriage a fundamental right beyond state legislation. The argument comes dangerously close to moral equivalence—the bishops seem to be suggesting that something as trivial as agency fees is commensurate in importance with teachings that go to the heart of Catholic doctrine, like the nature of marriage. “It is at least a bit grotesque for the [bishops] to conflate such questions,” wrote economist Charles W. Baird, author of Liberating Labor: A Christian Economist’s Case for Voluntary Unionism.

Catholic social teaching reminds church members that they must be “morally” coherent in their religious and secular beliefs. One might reasonably ask the same of the bishops after reading their Janus brief.

Photo by Scott Olson/Getty Images

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