A bishop and a priest clash over Michigan’s right to work law: the curses of the prophets

Catholic clergy are playing out a longstanding debate in response to the right to work legislation Michigan enacted yesterday. Reflecting an older, left-leaning Catholic agenda, Bishop Thomas Gumbleton thunders prophetically:

In the book of Isaiah, the prophet proclaims, “Woe to those who make unjust laws.” Indeed, woe to those in the Michigan state legislature who voted in favor of these laws. Woe to Gov. Snyder whose pen is at the ready to sign these bills.

What is Gumbleton’s basis for his prophetic cursing? Invoking the 1986 letter of the U.S. Catholic bishops, “Economic Justice for All,” he writes,

The right-to-work legislation that was passed by the House and the Senate in Michigan just this month is designed to break unions. It is designed to prevent workers from organizing. And we must oppose it as firmly as we did during the 1980s.

As Catholics, we believe that if the dignity of work is to remain protected, then the basic rights of workers must be protected — fair wages, freedom from discrimination and the right to organize and join unions. We believe in justice. We believe in the common good.

Right-to-work laws go against everything we believe.

Economists tell us that right-to-work laws devastate economic justice. They lower wages for all workers. They lessen benefits for all workers. They increase poverty for all people.

Workers tell us that these laws decrease cooperation, collaboration, love and solidarity.

Humbleton also appeals to the official consensus of the Presbyterian Church (USA), the United Methodist Church, The Evangelical Lutheran Church, the United Church of Christ, and the Union for Reform Judaism, to argue that his position reflects the core values of Christianity, Judaism, Islam, and “all great religions.”

In response the head of the conservative Acton Institute, Father Robert Sirico, calmly and helpfully disagrees:

I dissent. Michigan’s new right-to-work law is neither “unjust” nor will it “foster extreme inequality.”  The law simply gives working people the freedom to choose whether or not they want to be members of a union. What’s more, they are not forced to pay union dues or agency fees as a condition of employment. Another word for this is freedom.

Historically, the Catholic Church has looked favorably on unions — with exceptions, of course. The Church sees unions as one way to look after the well-being of workers and their families.  However, this favorable bias does not mean that workers are obligated to join a union, nor that management is obligated to accept the terms of a union. The right to join a union, in Church social teaching, is rooted in the natural right of association, which of course also means that people have the right not to associate. Which is exactly what this legislation addresses; it protects workers from being coerced to association with and paying fees to a group with whom they would rather not join.

Christians coming to radically different conclusions on politics is nothing new, of course. And while it is certainly helpful to glean from the best of Catholic social teaching over the years, it seems to me that prophetic denunciation isn’t quite helpful here. Many conservative Christians do it on their own pet issues, I know, but I have rejected that on this blog as well. There are times to speak ‘Thus sayeth the Lord’ to the powers that be. Michigan’s right to work legislation is not one of them.


About Matthew J. Tuininga

Matthew J. Tuininga is the Assistant Professor of Moral Theology at Calvin Theological Seminary in Grand Rapids, Michigan.

Posted on December 12, 2012, in Roman Catholic Church, unions and tagged , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. Comments Off on A bishop and a priest clash over Michigan’s right to work law: the curses of the prophets.

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