Be Proud to Be Union Where You Worship, Too

The Good Book warns Christians against hiding their light under a bushel.

Father Tony Shonis says that admonition applies to union members of all faiths.

"If you belong to a church, a synagogue or a mosque, you should tell the pastor, priest or imam that you are a union member and proud of it," said Shonis, who is proud of his union roots.

Shonis is associate pastor of Holy Name of Jesus Catholic Church in Henderson, an old Ohio River town in western Kentucky. He’s from Pennsylvania, where he grew up in a union family.

Shonis acknowledges that the less-than-union-friendly Religious Right is strong in rural states like Kentucky.

But he says the Catholic Church teaches that the right to organize and bargain collectively is a God-given right. He adds that Protestant, Jewish and Muslim communities also support that right.

Shonis practices what he preaches. He includes the Henderson-based Tri-Counties Central Labor Council on his pastoral rounds. Shonis has a standing invitation to visit the umbrella group for AFL-CIO-affiliated unions from Henderson, Union and Webster counties.

He says councils and local unions everywhere should consider inviting local faith leaders to meetings. "If you need somebody to open with a prayer, for example, just reach out to them and ask them in."

Shonis says some younger priests might need to be educated about unions. "A lot of priests used to come out of blue-collar union families. But today, most of them come out of professional families and have parents with college degrees.

"They know that the official teaching of the church supports unions and collective bargaining, but they’ve never had a concrete experience with unions. To learn about unions, there is no substitute for being around union members."

He says welcoming faith leaders to union meetings "lets them see for themselves that union members are honest, decent, hardworking, God-fearing men and women who want a better life for themselves and their families and for all working people."

Before he came to Henderson, Shonis pastored in Paducah—home of the Western Kentucky AFL-CIO Area Council—and Owensboro, the Daviess County seat. In Paducah, he helped start an online newspaper, The Rank and File Catholic.

He and Todd Johnson continue the paper in Henderson, the seat of Henderson County. Johnson lives in nearby Owensboro and is an organizer with Sprinklerfitters/UA Local 669.

Shonis is the newsletter chaplain. Johnson is editor. Shonis says the paper was started to highlight the church’s support for organized labor.

He said, "Unions, families and the Catholic Church are a marriage made in heaven." Families anchor the union movement and the church, he adds.

Shonis also urges union members to speak up for organized labor where they worship. "Don’t just blend in to the woodwork.

"For example, if your church has a building project, ask that union labor be considered because union members, like everybody else, support the church."

He says parish councils and finance committees sometimes are dominated by "people who would like to see a union-free environment. They say, 'union labor will cost us more money, and we can do this in a cheaper way.' Priests who don’t have a union background hear this and begin to buy into this, looking solely at the bottom line."

Here’s Shonis’ bottom line: "Never allow your church to get away with starting a building project without allowing union construction companies to bid on it. This is a moral issue."

He says it’s immoral to hire construction firms that exploit workers by paying them poorly and fail to provide them with insurance and pension benefits. "It is up to the church members to say that anyone who bids on a construction project has to pay a living wage and provide health care and pension benefits.

"So get involved on building committees. Make your voice heard. When they talk about money, say you’ll get more bang for your buck with skilled union labor."

Shonis says almost every religion has issued official statements sanctioning the right of workers to unionize. "But a lot of people at the grassroots aren’t aware of them, or they don’t pay any attention to them."

There are several such statements in the Catholic Church.

In the 1891 encyclical On the Condition of Labor (Rerum Novarum), Pope Leo XIII recognized that joining a union "is the natural right of man; and the State has for its office to protect natural rights, not to destroy them; and, if it forbids its citizens to form associations, it contradicts the very principle of its own existence, for both they and it exist in virtue of the like principle, namely, the natural tendency of man to dwell in society."

"All these rights [of workers], together with the need for the workers themselves to secure them, give rise to yet another right: the right of association, that is to form associations for the purpose of defending the vital interests of those employed in the various professions. These associations are called labour or trade unions...," said Pope John Paul II in 1981.

"No one may deny the right to organize without attacking human dignity itself," said the U.S. Catholic bishops in 1986. "Therefore, we firmly oppose organized efforts, such as those regrettably now seen in this country, to break existing unions and prevent workers from organizing."


This is a guest post from Berry Craig, a retired member of AFT Local 1360 in Kentucky.