As Labor Day approaches this weekend, there are small signs of hope for the resurgence of the labor movement in the United States. A recent Gallup poll showed that support for labor unions among Americans has risen to the highest levels since 2003, with 61 percent of Americans expressing approval of labor unions. The same poll showed that a plurality of Americans, 39 percent, want to see unions have more influence in society, compared to only 28 percent who want them to have less influence. A report by the Economic Policy Institute, while showing lower overall support for unions than the Gallup poll, also reveals that support for unions is highest among Americans between the ages of 18 and 29, meaning that younger generations of workers are more open to labor organizing and collective bargaining.
This increased support for labor unions is good news for the Catholic Church because it signifies an increased openness to Catholic social teaching’s insistence on the dignity of work and the rights of workers. The right of workers to organize into unions and collectively bargain for better wages and fair working conditions has been a cornerstone of Catholic social teaching since Pope Leo’s Rerum Novarum, written in 1891.
These signs of hope are emerging, however, at a time when unions remain institutionally weak. The same Gallup poll shows that, regardless of how they feel about unions, 46 percent of Americans believe that in the future unions will only become weaker. And today only 11 percent of American workers are union members, including just 6 percent of workers in the private sector. Individual states continue to pass or strengthen so-called right to work laws that weaken unions’ ability to collectively bargain. And the Supreme Court was only one vote away from significantly weakening the bargaining power of public sector unions in 2016, an issue that could return before the court.
In the midst of these troubling developments, the Catholic Church and labor activists must take advantage of the renewed support for unions and collective bargaining. In recent years there has been increasing collaboration between the Catholic Church in the United States and the labor movement, hearkening back to an earlier era when Catholics were a major force in worker movements. One intriguing development is the training of a new generation of “labor priests,” priests who collaborate with workers in organizing and protesting, particularly in the Archdiocese of Chicago.
As I have written elsewhere, another significant development is the solidarity between the labor and immigrant rights movements. Immigrants make up a significant but vulnerable part of the work force, and they can help bolster the flagging ranks of labor unions. Since the U.S. Catholic Church is a church of immigrants, the increasing links between these two movements also provide another avenue for the church to play an important role in encouraging the labor movement, as well.
In some ways, the labor movement in the United States is weaker than it has been in decades. But there are signs of life, both in the increased public support for unions and collective bargaining and in the creative ways labor activists are trying to re-imagine the movement. The Catholic Church in the United States also seems to be discerning the signs of the times and recognizing that it has an important role to play in this new effort to promote the dignity of workers.
Matthew A. Shadle is Associate Professor of Theology and Religious Studies at Marymount University in Arlington, Virginia. He has published The Origins of War: A Catholic Perspective (Georgetown, 2011). His work focuses on the development of Catholic social teaching and its intersection with both fundamental moral theology and the social sciences, with special focus on war and peace, the economy, and immigration.