Justice as Participation: Joe Biden and Catholic Social Thought on Workers’ Rights

By: Meghan J. Clark

March 11, 2021

Joe Biden and Catholicism in U.S. Politics

Amazon warehouse workers in Bessemer, Alabama are voting on whether to join the Retail, Wholesale, and Department Store Union (RWDSU). If the resolution passes, they would be the first Amazon workers in the United States to unionize, with potential cascading impact for workers around the country. These unionizing efforts have been met with overwhelming resistance and anti-union efforts by Amazon management. On February 28, President Joe Biden released an unprecedented pro-union video message unequivocally supporting workers’ right to unionize and collectively bargain. “The choice to join a union is up to the workers—full stop,” Biden reiterated that the law guarantees this without interference from employers. It is not the first time that the president has vocally supported unions, but the vocal support for an ongoing labor organizing effort is noteworthy. As a Catholic moral theologian, for me it represented a moment of hope, that Catholic social thought’s commitment to economic justice might more strongly influence domestic U.S. policy, especially on the dignity of work and workers.

From its beginning in 1891, modern Catholic social thought (CST) has been crystal clear in the support of workers’ rights to associate, to form unions, and to collectively bargain. CST bases its support for unions on two fundamental insights. First, that workers are at a structural disadvantage compared to capital or management within capitalism. And second, work is inextricably tied to human dignity, as Gaudium et Spes notes: “For when people work, they not only alter things and society, they develop themselves as well. They learn much, they cultivate their resources, they go outside of themselves and beyond themselves” (no. 35). It is the combination of dignity and justice that undergirds what John Paul II called “the priority of labor over capital” (Laborem Exercens, no. 12). While everyone plays an important role in building a healthy economy, Catholicism calls for evaluating economic policies or systems from the perspective of workers not “job creators.” This is deeply counter to the dominant political rhetoric in American politics for the last 40 years. 

Catholicism calls for evaluating economic policies or systems from the perspective of workers not 'job creators.'

Since 1980, the United States has seen rapid declines in union membership, increases in anti-union “right to work” legislation, and stagnated wages. Despite federal law, the Economic Policy Institute notes, “Employers are charged with violating federal law in 41.5% of all union election campaigns. And one out of every five union election campaigns involves a charge that a worker was illegally fired for union activity…employers spend roughly $340 million annually on union avoidance consultants to help them stave off union elections.” In the Netflix documentary American Factory, viewers were given a rare look into corporate anti-union efforts. One consistent thread throughout anti-union campaigns is the reliance upon arguing that workers are better off without a union because the union will silence them. Empirically, the data demonstrates that unionized workers have higher salaries, better health benefits, and a greater voice in workplace policies. In 2020, data shows unionized workers earned on average 11.2% more than non-unionized workers in the same industry, with even more drastic gaps for Black and Hispanic workers.

Joe Biden intentionally positions himself as a friend of labor and frequently references the important role unions have played in American society. Personally, I wish Biden would incorporate this more when he talks about his faith. Biden would find strong faith resources to bolster support for a dialogue on a more inclusive and participatory economy. In Catholic social thought, unions and worker associations are a positive good, not just a tool to oppose unjust discrimination and oppression. The right of workers to participate in the decision-making process concerning their workplace is important even when such workers are well paid. If when talking about his faith, Biden included his support for the dignity of work, that might help other Catholics see the connection.

If when talking about his faith, Biden included his support for the dignity of work, that might help other Catholics see the connection. 

The dignity of work and economic justice is therefore a place where I hope that Biden and the U.S. Catholic Bishops will find common ground. In Economic Justice for All, the USCCB emphatically opposed all efforts to break existing unions and prevent workers from unionizing (no. 104). Their guidance for unions and the health care sector clearly states “[w]orkers must be able to participate in the decisions made in the workplace that affect their lives and their livelihood.” 

As I have stated, Catholic social teaching on the matter is crystal clear. However, as the worrying trend of Catholic universities engaging in anti-union campaigns when campus staff or adjuncts attempt to unionize indicates, Catholic institutions are often not good examples of upholding CST on the dignity of work and workers’ rights. Recent efforts by Marquette University to openly discourage union organizing is but one example among many of Catholic universities engaged in thwarting unionizing efforts. Additionally, de-certifications of faculty unions by St. Leo University and St. Xavier University demonstrate that a strong voice for workers’ rights is as much needed inside the Church as it is in wider American society. 

Catholic institutions are often not good examples of upholding Catholic social thought on the dignity of work and workers’ rights.

As theologian Jerry Beyer has noted, these efforts to block unions by Catholic institutions fail a basic moral test of Catholic social teaching. Catholic institutions claiming workers do not need a union because of decent pay is eerily similar to Amazon hiding behind $15/hour as an argument against its workers choosing to unionize. Claiming to be a “good employer” is not an argument against workers’ right to collectively bargain and participate. Decades of culture wars, I fear, have alienated many Catholics from appreciating CST on economic justice, including the rights of workers to participate in decision-making together.

Upholding the rights of Amazon warehouse workers is only one component in reframing the American debate on economic justice toward participation. CST’s language on the dignity of work and participation also offers a way to reframe the American conversation away from its preoccupation with mandating that those living in poverty prove that they work. It can instead create the social conditions for people to engage in meaningful, dignified work. Recent Senate debates about enhanced unemployment benefits and cash payments serve as a reminder that American politics has a dark attachment to the stereotype of the lazy, undeserving poor. For Catholics, as Dorothy Day famously noted, “The Gospel takes away our right forever, to discriminate between the deserving and the undeserving poor.” However, it doesn’t just violate the call of the Gospel; this entrenched suspicion of the poor and so-called working classes isn’t borne out by reality. Studies of basic income programs indicate that guaranteed direct income payments to individuals increase rather than decrease worker participation, including one in Stockton, California. Catholic social thought, notes theologian Kate Ward, can help us develop economic policies that are rooted in human flourishing not fear. 

Justice as participation can provide a strong but challenging foundation for building our post-COVID civil, political, and economic society in which no one is excluded.

Incorporating Catholic social thought’s emphasis on justice as participation into his domestic policy agenda would allow Biden to focus policy priorities on the dignity of work, voting rights, and  building a more inclusive economy and democracy. If this happens, Joe Biden would certainly be acting upon his Catholic faith. Recently, Pope Francis extended this call even further, urging, “To help our society to 'build back better,' inclusion of the vulnerable must also entail efforts to promote their active participation.” From worker rights to voting rights and beyond, justice as participation can provide a strong but challenging foundation for building our post-COVID civil, political, and economic society in which no one is excluded.

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