“Union busting is a mortal sin,” the Catholic Scholars for Worker Justice said in a 2010 statement on the indispensable role of unions. And while the church hierarchy has never quite put it that way, workers’ right to unionize is an issue on which church teachings are pretty clear.
In 1891, Pope Leo XIII wrote that the proliferation of unions was “greatly to be desired.” In 2009, Pope Benedict XVI wrote that unions “have always been encouraged and supported by the church.” The United States Conference of Catholic Bishops was more forthright in a 1986 pastoral letter: “No one may deny the right to organize without attacking human dignity itself.”
But that does not seem to be quite the position of administrators at Duquesne University, a Catholic institution in Pittsburgh. Adjunct professors are trying to organize a union there, and Duquesne is arguing that its affiliation with the Spiritans, a Roman Catholic order, affords it a special exemption from the jurisdiction of the National Labor Relations Board. It’s a conflict between church and state, the school’s lawyer argues, to allow workers to file for a union election.
Catholic moral theologians say Catholics have a special duty to recognize unions — and Catholic administrators say their university has a special right not to.