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What does the Catholic Church teach about labor strikes?

Brantly Millegan - published on 01/21/13

Workers at thousands of Wal-Mart stores are planning to go on strike on Black Friday. What does the Catholic Church teach about striking?

Striking as a method of resolving disputes between workers and employers “is recognized by Catholic social teaching as legitimate in the proper conditions and within just limits” (LE, 20).

The Catholic Church has a long history of supporting labor and trade unions. For example, the Catholic Church helped inspire and was an important supporter of the Polish trade union, Solidarność, which was founded in 1980 as the first independent union to be recognized in a Communist Warsaw Pact country.
Based on the fundamental right to form associations with other people, workers have the right to form unions. Due to “complex historical and institutional processes,” it has generally been difficult to ensure that the rights of workers are respected. Unions play an important role in the protection of the rights of workers and are thus an “indispensable element of social life” (CSDC, 305). Unions are not to “struggle against” the other side, but are called to work “for the just good” and should be marked by cooperation (LE, 20; CSDC 306).
Furthermore, “being first of all instruments of solidarity and justice, unions may not misuse the tools of contention; because of what they are called to do, they must overcome the temptation of believing that all workers should be union-members, they must be capable of self-regulation and be able to evaluate the consequences that their decisions will have on the common good” (CSDC, 306). Lastly, labor unions should not 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” (CSDC, 307).
As much as possible, conflicts between workers and employers should be resolved through negotiation. However, given the right conditions, striking can be legitimate. Thus, “workers should be assured the right to strike, without being subjected to personal penal sanctions for taking part in a strike” (LE, 20).
A strike is legitimate when all of the following conditions are true: (1) “every other method for the resolution of disputes has been ineffectual” (CSDC 304), (2) “it is necessary to obtain a proportionate benefit” (CCC 2435), (3) it is peaceful, (4) the goal is directly related to working conditions, and (5) the goal is in accord with the common good. In addition, “it must never be forgotten that, when essential community services are in question, they must in every case be ensured, if necessary by means of appropriate legislation” (LE, 20).
Nevertheless, striking is “an extreme means” that “must not be abused” (LE, 20). It thus follows that a strike is immoral when any of the following is true: (1) the chances of a resolution via negotiation have not been reasonably exhausted, (2) the benefit sought is not proportionate to the losses inflicted by the strike, (3) it is violent, (4) the goal is not directly related to working conditions, or (5) the goal is not in accord with the common good.
The legitimate need for a strike in a particular situation signals that the rights of workers are not being respected. Always mindful of the fact that “law must not undertake more, nor proceed further, than is required for the remedy of the evil or the removal of the mischief” (RN, 36), the government should enact appropriate legislation to prevent such situations from arising in the first place: “The laws should forestall and prevent such troubles from arising; they should lend their influence and authority to the removal in good time of the causes which lead to conflicts between employers and employed” (RN, 39).
Compendium of the Social Doctrine of the Church (CSDC), paragraphs 304-307
Catechism of the Catholic Church (CCC), paragraphs 2430, 2435
Laborem Exercens (LE), section 20
Rerum Novarum (RN), paragraphs 36-39

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