Policy Briefs

Labor and the Common Good 2011

Recently there have been efforts in several Midwestern states, including here in Iowa, to limit the collective bargaining rights of public employee unions. Accordingly, now is a suitable time to recall the Catholic Church’s teaching on the common good and the rights of workers. We also reflect upon the responsibilities which accompany these rights, as well as offer questions for reflection when such legislation is considered.

We believe all people have the same basic right to the spiritual and material things that make for a decent life. These “common goods” begin with the right to life itself, given by God through a mother and father, and include, among others, freedom to follow the moral law, access to healthy food, shelter, clean air to breathe and water to drink, education, and health care; and spiritual goods such as freedom of religion and freedom of association (Pacem in Terris, #11-14 and following.) The common good can be understood as “the sum total of social conditions which allow people, either as groups or as individuals, to reach their fulfillment more fully and more easily” (Catechism of the Catholic Church, #1906).

Also among these rights is the opportunity to obtain work. Work is considered a form of cooperation with God’s creative powers.

In the earliest chapters of Genesis, God invites us to work the soil and care for his creation. We have a duty to work when we are able, not only so we can provide for our families and ourselves, but also to contribute to the common good through the fruits of our work. We believe the “economy exists for the person, not the person for the economy.”

One hundred and twenty years ago, the misery and injustice experienced by much of the working class led Pope Leo XIII to issue his landmark encyclical, Rerum Novarum. The letter expressed support for the rights of workers and labor unions, while rejecting socialism, unfettered capitalism and greedy moneylending practices. Since then, the Church has steadfastly upheld that workers deserve just wages and benefits, decent working conditions and the opportunity to organize.

Workers retain their right of association whether they work for a private employer or for the government. Workers should also retain the free choice of whether to join a union, and remain free of coercion from employers or unions in making this choice.

We affirm that, at their best, unions help workers receive fair pay and benefits and improve working conditions. Unions and employers can contribute towards the common good by playing an active role in the economic and social development of all society. In our communities, we still see many people who do not have easy access to all the goods consistent with our sacred dignity. Unions can be a part of the solution to these difficult social and political problems.

In Laborem Exercens, Pope John Paul II called labor associations “an indispensable element of social life, especially in modern industrialized societies,” but also reminded unions “to secure the just rights of workers within the framework of the common good of the whole of society.” (#20) More recently, in his encyclical letter, Caritas in Veritate, Pope Benedict XVI states, “The repeated calls…for the promotion of workers’ associations that can defend their rights must therefore be honored today even more than in the past.” (#25)

However, we also affirm that no right is unlimited in its exercise (Pacem in Terris, #28, 30). As Pope John Paul II wrote in Laborem Exercens (#20), workers have a responsibility to take into account “the limitations imposed by the general economic situation of the country.” Not every union proposal must be embraced in its entirety. Members of unions have responsibilities — to provide a fair day’s work for a fair day’s pay and to treat employers and co-workers with respect.

We also fully acknowledge the challenges the state government finds in balancing its budget while fulfilling its own responsibilities to the common good, which include paying its employees fairly and protecting the life and dignity of those who are poor and vulnerable.

Finally, we offer these questions for consideration by the legislature and union members:

  • How do my individual interests correspond to or conflict with the common good?
  • How does a just society with limited resources act together for the common good?
  • How can we evaluate the consequences our decisions will have for the common good?

We believe a patient dialogue on labor issues will best serve the people of Iowa. The present situation offers all of us an opportunity to work strenuously for the common good in order that all might participate justly and equitably in the rich gifts from our Creator.


Most Rev. Jerome Hanus, OSB, Archbishop of Dubuque

Most Rev. R. Walker Nickless, Bishop of Sioux City

Most Rev. Martin Amos, Bishop of Davenport

Most Rev. Richard Pates, Bishop of Des Moines


1  “The word of God’s revelation is profoundly marked by the fundamental truth that man, created in the image of God, shares by his work in the activity of the Creator and that, within the limits of his own human capabilities, man in a sense continues to develop that activity, and perfects it as he advances further and further in the discovery of the resources and values contained in the whole of creation.” Laborem Exercens, (#25)

2 A Catholic Framework for Economic Life, United States Conference of Catholic Bishops, (#1)

3 “Properly speaking, unions are promoters of the struggle for social justice” Compendium of Social Doctrine. (#306)