“Now, I’m a Union Man”? – Catholic social teaching and trade unions


The band “The Strawbs”, perhaps most famous for “Now, I’m a Union Man”, was formed at St. Mary’s before it was a university (they were originally called “The Strawberry Hill Boys”). The lyrics of that song, don’t really accord with Catholic social teaching on unions (“I say what I think, that the company stinks”…”With a hell of a shout, it’s ‘Out brothers, out!’ And the rise of the factory’s fall”…“And I always get my way If I strike for higher pay”…), but it is a good song and forms an interesting preface to an article on Catholic social teaching and trade unions.


The issue of trade unions is one on which people of a variety of political perspectives ought to be able to agree – if they consider the subject in the context of Catholic social thought and teaching. Those Catholics who are broadly supportive of what Pope John Paul II described as a “free economy” in his encyclical Centesimus annus, should welcome all of the good fruits of a free economy, including the many different forms of civil society organisation that evolve. Such civil society organisations can play an important role in regulating and civilising economic life so that we do not end up in the trap of worshiping what Pope Benedict XVI described as a “state plus market” binary divide.

Properly constituted, trade unions are essential agents for promoting the common good and, therefore, in promoting social justice (properly understood). The promotion of social justice is the responsibility of all institutions in society and there is a pivotal role for properly constituted trade unions.

Pope Leo XIII’s encyclical, Rerum novarum, mentioned how it was the case that, if the state forbade the creation of unions, it contradicted its own existence because the job of the state is to uphold rights – one of which is freedom of association. The state should also not interfere unduly with the organisation of any free association.

The case for unions has been made again and again by every pope since Leo XIII. In the encyclicals of John Paul II, the importance of freedom of association more generally was emphasised very strongly. This is not just an important human right, it is a vital aspect of our humanity to deliberatively bind together, in solidarity with others, to create associations to promote the common good. Unions should promote fraternity, harmony and the rights and prosperity of their members.

The functions and place of unions

Unions should not, explained John Paul II, “play politics” (in his words) or have close links with political parties as that would undermine their primary role.

Although the original proposed Catholic character of trade unions proposed by Pope Leo XIII and Pius XI has more recently been played down, it is still clear in later teaching that unions have a wide range of positive functions beyond securing the rights of workers. John Paul II made it clear that they should promote education, provide welfare, promote moral growth, perhaps even establish universities (something that would be easy to do in the UK system). A trade-union-sponsored university, for example, could teach business management on a part-time basis where people could bring their day-to-day work experience into the classroom and, as a result of their qualifications, move up the employment ladder.

Unions should not, explained John Paul II, “play politics” (in his words) or have close links with political parties as that would undermine their primary role.

As is stressed in Pope Benedict XVI’s encyclical, Caritas in veritate, the natural place for unions is civil society rather than politics. And, according to Pope Benedict’s predecessor, as repeated in the Catechism, they should play a major role (more important than that of the state), together with other civil society organisations, in regulating to secure human rights in the economic sector.

In addition, unions should not be established in such a way that they promote an attitude of class conflict: their role is to promote harmony, collaboration and social justice.

In summary, as Pope Leo put it, in teaching that has been reinforced rather than contradicted, unions should advance the body, soul and property of their members – to which I think we can add “advance the mind” too.

The right to strike

Pope Leo XIII’s encyclical, Rerum novarum, mentioned how it was the case that, if the state forbade the creation of unions, it contradicted its own existence because the job of the state is to uphold rights – one of which is freedom of association.

When it comes to the right to strike, John Paul II taught that essential services should never be endangered by strike action. In addition, the right to strike must not be used for political purposes and should only be used as a last resort.

The Catechism elaborates on this, and it says that a strike is legitimate to obtain a proportionate benefit. Though the benefit should also be just. The Catechism also states that any strike must relate only to working conditions – strikes should never be politically motivated.

We could add something else to this list of conditions. Unions should also consider the vulnerability of those who are affected by strike action. These conditions for just strike action are subjective in terms of their application and must be prudently considered by individual union members.

Strikes should not be used in industries where organised labour is able to strike in a situation where there is a monopoly for the purpose of increasing salaries when workers are not being treated unjustly.

The future of unions

I would argue that the future of trade unions lies in their becoming more closely aligned to Catholic social teaching in their structure and activities. Currently, more than 87 per cent of people in the private sector choose not to join a union. Perhaps more would join if their functions were different. The beginning of Catholic unionism was in Bavaria in the mid-to-late 19th century. Associations developed to assist workers who were relatively footloose and who moved from place-to-place for employment. Perhaps this should be the future of unionism in our more fluid employment environment. These societies provided lodgings, fraternity and vocational training across 400 different branches. Unions in continental Europe still provide unemployment and sickness insurance and are well placed to do so because they can control adverse selection, which is a feature of these markets in commercial settings, easily. Indeed, trade unions used to be huge providers of welfare and financial services in the UK in the 19th century.

Given the modern-day structure of the welfare state and financial services industry, trade unions could make a huge contribution by rediscovering that role. Historically, a broader role for unions in providing services for members has helped them develop a more diverse membership base. The more extensive provision of welfare, financial services, legal services and education (including through the creation of universities) might be an effective way for unions to further develop their potential to promote the common good.

The Compendium of the Social Doctrine of the Church wrote about how unions should adopt new approaches. Catholic social teaching suggests that those approaches should be built on promoting fraternity and harmony in the workplace and the building of the mind, body and soul of members.

This article is an edited version of a talk given in a Pastoral Review debate on trade unions and Catholic social teaching with the Trades Union Congress President, Maria Exall

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Author: Philip Booth

Published: 14th February 2023

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© Catholic Social Thought 2020