The Labor Movement, Teachers Unions, and Catholic Social Teaching

Labor Day is an opportunity to reflect on work, education, and the proper role of unions in the light of Catholic social teaching

Catholic religious leaders have long supported the labor movement in the United States because it has promoted the economic wellbeing of workers and their families. The Irish, Italian, and Slavic immigrants of the past, and the Latino immigrants of the present, have gained from the efforts of countless Catholic and non-Catholic labor leaders and supporters who have organized workers for better wages, benefits, and working conditions. 

A plethora of Catholic men and women have learned to organize workers and engage both the economic powers that be and the wider civil society through labor unions, often climbing to the pinnacles of labor power. Workers and their families recall self-professed Catholics such as Terrence Powderly of the Knights of Labor, Philip Murray and the United Steel Workers, George Meany and John Sweeney, presidents of the AFL-CIO, Cesar Chavez and Dolores Huerta (co-founders of the UFW), and the present day Maria Elena Durazo of the Los Angeles County Federation of Labor. Catholic social teaching in the wake of the industrial revolution contributed reason and faith to organized labor’s activities, even if indirectly, through participation of Catholic union members and the clergy who helped form them.

In recent years, numerous government, academic and media sources have documented the declining numbers of unionized workers in the United States in both relative and absolute numbers; 12% of the workforce is organized and 6% of the union members are public sector workers. While the number of unionists has declined the political strength of labor has grown, especially in its lobbying, political fundraising, and volunteer campaign work. The public sector unions like the Service Employees International Union (SEIU), the National Education Association (NEA), and the American Federation of Teachers (AFT) are at the apex of their political influence. These service and education unions, as well as the building and trades and health care unions, have a distinct advantage over manufacturing unions. Construction, health care, the hospitality industry, and schools remain state-side with little risk of capital flight; furthermore, the young, the ill, and the elderly normally remain close to home. Similarly, the government (the public sector) tends not to set up shop offshore.

While one can laud, for example, the desire and activities of teachers unions that promote students and their families, serve immigrants, and advocate for economic justice, the union leaders and their allies are tragically promoting anti-life and anti-family initiatives as part of their activism. As significant players in public education, they are encouraging cultural perspectives that reject the values of a great number of Americans, including Catholics and other people of good will. This was not always the case in American education and the union movement.

Home schools, tutoring, and privately financed common schools—i.e., private education—were the forms of schooling available to Americans until the 1840s when the state of Massachusetts established public education. Early American common schools, including charitable schools, were also very much religious schools, teaching students to read, in part, in order to learn the Scripture. The common schools in fact provided faith formation for their students. For example in Puritan New England, Calvinists recognized both a covenantal relationship with God and human sinfulness, and they believed that men and women would abhor sin and evil given more knowledge—education—and, in the end, students learned their faith by reading the Bible. Differences in theology in the early 19th century, however, would lead to the ascending Unitarian and Transcendentalist views in New England, moving people away from a belief in human sinfulness and a dependence on God to the view that people alone would come to their own temporal solutions. In the Unitarian perspective, men and women would end human deprivation with more and better education. Unitarians recognized human iniquity but focused their energy on better education and not a savior, and by 1818 Unitarian academics and clergy, in particular at Harvard, supported public education as the vehicle for forming good individuals and building a good society. Public education in Puritan New England was also used to educate Catholic immigrants in Protestant theology and ultimately a more secular world view.

Horace Mann, considered the father of American education, and the educators who followed him, moved schools further away from their religious underpinnings and effectively placed education in the hands of the state. Mann had studied the Prussian school system (established in the wake of Napoleon’s defeat of the Prussians) because its more regimented, rationalized state system of education offered a model for the future. In addition, the theories of Robert Owen, a proponent of cooperativism, had captured the attention of many Americans. He had proposed a national educational system for England that would mold its youth into proponents of and participants in communities organized as producer cooperatives. He also brought these ideas to the United States. Samuel Blumenfeld further argues in NEA: Trojan Horse in American Education that Hegelian philosophy—in which divinized man, not the covenantal God, is the source of ultimate good—influenced leading American educators and political leaders of the time. This theoretical trajectory in the end made secular humanism the de facto new “religious” basis for American education. Horace Mann contributed to this process by establishing state colleges in Massachusetts to educate teachers, solidifying the link between the state and education in the U.S.

As one might surmise, during the latter half of the 19th century educators also began to see cultural and societal issues in exclusively behavioristic and materialistic terms rather than responding to good and evil by means of both faith and reason. Finally, in the midst of an increasingly industrialized world, industrial era life and thought influenced the formation of both professional educators groups and industrial and labor relations efforts in education— that is, teachers unions.

The National Education Association (3.2 million members), founded in 1857, began as a combination of professional society and institutional advisor to the state; it has become a formidable special interest group, developing and implementing public policy while serving its membership as a union. The American Federation of Teachers (1.5 million members), established in the early 20th century, organized itself as a workers’ union and affiliated with the American Federation of Labor from its earliest beginnings. The American Federation of Teachers has traditionally formed unions in urban centers and it, like other public sector unions, has two bites at the proverbial apple: 1) promoting public education practices and policies (including employment practices and policies) through legislation and 2) bargaining with the state over terms and conditions of employment. If union losses occur at the collective bargaining table or on the picket line, then victories are won on the political field of campaigns and legislation—and vice versa. Both of these unions are constantly working to broaden the scope of services that their members provide while opposing school vouchers, tax credits for private education, efforts to home school students, and education reform.

The teachers unions have erroneously taken sides on cultural debates that impact the understanding of our humanity. The NEA supports Roe v. Wade and abortion on demand because of the lobbying of its Women’s Caucus. Its resolution I-13 “…urges the government to give high priority to making available all methods of family planning to women and men unable to take advantage of private facilities. The Association further urges the implementation of community-operated school-based family planning clinics that will provide intensive counseling by trained personnel.” The American Federation of Teachers has supported abortion since the 1980s and is a contributor to Planned Parenthood. Through the cooperation of these unions, Planned Parenthood and its sex education has become what some are calling the “catechism” of public education in the United States. If one believes that the moral life starts with a spiritual life, one must ask, “On what spiritual beliefs do these organizations base their public positions on life and family?” Both unions have promoted homosexual marriage without acknowledging the truth that every child comes from a mother and a father and that every child has a right to know his or her mother and father. With regard to these issues in U.S. politics, the Democratic Party receives over 90% of the PAC money distributed by public sector unions, and this percentage is higher in the case of the teachers unions. Through their monopoly hold on education in the United States, the teachers unions and the far left wing of the Democratic Party have taken charge of educating children in fundamental aspects of our humanity without complete parental awareness and/or consent.

The Compendium of the Social Doctrine of the Church, while upholding the importance of unions, gives prudent advice about the role of unions:

Union organizations have the duty to exercise influence in the political arena, make it duly sensitive to labor problems and helping it to work so that workers’ rights are respected. Unions do not, however, have the character of “political parties” struggling for power, and they should not be forced to submit to the decisions of political parties nor be too closely linked to them. “In such a situation they easily lose contact with their specific role, which is to secure the just rights of workers within the framework of the common good of the whole of society; instead they become an instrument used for other purposes (John Paul II, Encyclical Letter Laborem Exercens, 20: AAS 73 (1981), 631; Compendium, #307).

In a recent Wall Street Journal commentary—“Why are Teachers Unions So Opposed to Change?”(July 20, 2014)former Los Angeles Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa admonishes both the NEA and AFT for attacking the Obama administration for proposing education reforms. I am not endorsing President Obama’s proposals but I am pointing out that Mayor Villaraigosa “…a former union leader [United Teachers of Los Angeles and AFSCME] and lifelong Democrat” recognizes that our educational system is not serving students and their families and that the unions have become an impediment to change. He bemoans the reality that “… parents are voting with their feet. Today, nearly 10 million students have opted out of the traditional public-school system, attending private schools or public charter schools, or they are home-schooled. Another million parents are on charter-school waiting lists and surveys show overwhelming support for vouchers among minorities.” He further acknowledges that public school tenure and seniority laws have become so untenable that this year the courts in Vergara v. California had to step in to protect low-income students from “ineffective teachers.” Mayor Villaraigosa is simply expressing the sentiments of other citizens, public educators and supporters of public schools, many of whom are union members. At the minimum, religious leaders and people of good will need to defend and support the voices of reason within and outside of these unions that dissent to the hijacking of the members’ financial, social and political capital for, at times, iconoclastic legislative and collective bargaining agendas.

Rev. John Courtney Murray, SJ, a great defender of religious freedom in the 20th century, believed in the First Amendment of the U.S. Constitution. He believed that virtuous people living under religious freedom would work for the common good. He also believed that in a pluralistic society like the United States, to deny public support of church-schools was to segregate religion, denying distributive justice with regard to the burdens and benefits of society (See, for example, We Hold These Truths: Catholic Reflections on the American Proposition, [Sheed and Ward, 1960], pages 146-48.) The U.S. tax system and U.S. labor laws are based on an understanding of distributive justice; why not the education of children as reflected by the plurality of American society? Why should parents and children not have the opportunity to attend the schools of their choosing paid for, if only in part, by taxes? Teachers would have the right to organize in such schools, and the teachers and employers could safeguard the religious nature of the institutions in management rights clauses and oaths of fidelity.

Labor Day offers a time to remember the contributions of working people in our world, whether union members or not. It is also a day for Catholics to remind themselves of the Church’s support for organized labor because organized workers who rightly fulfill their vocations serve the vital cell of society, the family. However, the Church’s social doctrine teaches Catholics and other people of good will to respect life and marriage, the basis of the family; it behooves Catholics to speak out when labor unions become hostile to this teaching. People of faith cannot forget that they are co-workers with God: “If the Lord does not build the house, in vain do its builders labor.”


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About Father George E. Schultze, SJ 4 Articles
Father George E. Schultze, SJ is President-Rector of St. Patrick’s Seminary and University in Menlo Park, California, where he is also Associate Professor of Moral Theology. He has an undergraduate degree in Industrial and Labor Relations from Cornell, a MBA from the Univ. of Calif. at Berkeley, and a Ph.D. in Social Ethics from the Univ. of Southern California. Prior to entering the Society of Jesus, he was a National Labor Relations Board Agent and a member of the National Labor Relations Board Union.