Bob McKeon

April 18, 2011

The Jesuits in the United States have published a book on Catholic social teaching with the title Our Best Kept Secret. I am dismayed how often this turns out to be true, even with Catholics highly committed to practising their faith.

Twice in recent weeks I have sat down with Catholic men who over a period of many years have lived out their personal commitments to social justice though active involvement in their trade unions. In each case, they said they had never heard about Church teaching that addresses issues of human dignity in the workplace and that affirms the vital role labour unions play as agents for justice. In each case, they regretted not learning about their Church's social teaching decades earlier.

Pope Pius XII shared this concern about making Church teaching on the dignity of human labour better known when he instituted a feast day dedicated to St. Joseph the Worker in 1955. Significantly, he chose May 1, International Workers Day, as the date on the liturgical calendar.

Papal social teaching statements, from the 1890s until today, support the right of workers to organize into trade unions. In 1986, the Canadian bishops published a statement with the title Supporting Labour Unions: A Christian Responsibility. This had special meaning for many of us in Edmonton because it came out just as the bitter, six-month long strike at the Gainers meatpacking plant was starting.

The bishops state: "Labour unions have an essential role to play in preventing the violation of the dignity of human work and serving as a mouthpiece for the struggle for social justice."

Labour unions make it possible for workers to have a public voice and to participate in decisions affecting their own lives. They are democratic institutions.

They support struggles for fair wages, benefits and safe working conditions. Unions are not only to protect the rights of their own members, but to work for workplace justice for all workers.

Catholic social teaching takes a realistic view of strikes. There is a recognition that for workers to have a meaningful voice, they need to be able to exercise power in collective bargaining which comes from the ability of workers to withhold their labour in a strike. Church teaching is clear that the right to strike should not be abused and speaks of conditions for a just strike.


Obviously, labour unions, like all other human institutions, can become corrupt, undemocratic and self-serving. To counter this possibility, the bishops encourage Catholic workers to take their responsibility as union members seriously and participate in union meetings, volunteer for committees, and be willing to run for union leadership positions.

It is important that workers participating in union certification votes and in votes to decide between competing unions in their workplaces recognize these decisions have serious ethical implications.

What does this mean in practical terms for those of us who are not union members? Father Michael Ryan, a respected professor of Catholic social teaching from London, Ont., argues that Catholics should respect picket lines. He cites the late Cardinal John O'Connor of New York who said, "I unconditionally disapprove of using facilities where workers are on strike."

We can decide to purchase our goods and services from companies that respect the human dignity and basic rights of their workers, including the right to organize.


Worker justice issues are still very much with us in Alberta. We hear of workers receiving poverty-level wages having to go to food banks to feed their families. Newspaper headlines regularly speak of workplaces where workers are seriously injured or even killed.

Many workers fear for their future as senior citizens, because of inadequate pensions and retirement benefits. Workers coming to Alberta in the Temporary Foreign Worker program are vulnerable to exploitation and mistreatment.

Many of us, regardless of our workplace role or status, are committed to working towards greater justice in our workplaces. It is important for us to know that our Church, through its social teaching, fully supports and encourages these efforts.

For those of us who are labour union members, this teaching is explicit. It is time that through preaching and catechesis in our parishes, and teaching in our schools that our Catholic social teaching on worker justice no longer be our Church's "best kept secret."

(Bob McKeon: