More Perfect Unions


In 1934, as a Senate committee debated a measure to protect the right of workers to form unions, the U.S. Catholic bishops weighed in on the debate. John Burke, CSP, speaking on behalf of the bishops’ Administrative Committee, addressed a letter to the senators:

The worker’s right to form labor unions and to bargain collectively is as much his right as the right to participate through delegated representatives in the making of laws which regulate his civic conduct. Both are inherent rights. The worker can exercise his God-given faculty of freedom and properly order his life in preparation for eternity only through a system which permits him freely to choose his representatives in industry.

There was nothing particularly novel about the principles Burke expressed. His letter was submitted along with the text of Quadragesimo anno (“the fortieth year”), Pope Pius XI’s 1931 social encyclical, which commended the role of trade unions in social life. The title of that encyclical referred to the fortieth anniversary of Pope Leo XIII’s elegant Rerum novarum (1891), the foundational text of Catholic social thought in the modern age. Reflecting on how the modern economy too often allows the rich and powerful an opportunity to exploit working people, Leo took comfort in the proliferation of “workingmen’s unions” that helped ameliorate labor conditions. “There are not a few...

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About the Author

Clayton Sinyai is the political director of Laborers Local 11 in Alexandria, Virginia, and the author of Schools of Democracy (Cornell). He can be reached at