Jesus Our Shepherd
The Popes And Wal-Mart On Labor Unions
Richard P. McBrien

We have heard a lot of talk in recent months that the solution to the Catholic Church's current sexual-abuse crisis is greater "fidelity" to the church's teachings. However, whenever this point is made, there is an implication that the teachings in question primarily, if not exclusively, concern human sexuality and reproduction: cgastity, birth control, homosexuality, celibacy, women priests, abortion, stem-cell research, cloning and the like.

But official church teachings range much more widely than that. Not only do they touch matters of faith, such as Christ's divinity or his Real Presence in the Eucharist, but also a much broader range of moral questions: social justice, human rights, capital punishment and peace. There is a certain type of Catholic for whom "cafeteria Catholicism" is a failing only of fellow Catholics of a more liberal or progressive orientation. Such Catholics are said to "pick and choose" among church teachings, consistently turning up their noses at the sight of any teaching that pertains to sex.

Yet "cafeteria Catholicism" is practiced on a more "ecumenical" scale within the church; Catholics at the other (conservative) end of the spectrum practice it just as effortlessly as their more liberal counterparts. While these conservatives heartily support papal teaching on birth control and homosexuality for example, they either ignore or deftly interpret away papal teaching on economic rights, Third World debt and the "option for the poor."

If indeed lack of fidelity to the teachings of the church is at the root not only of the current sexual-abuse crisis, but of any and all other crises in the church, those of us who are truly concerned about its spiritual health and well-being need to be on the watch for signs of infidelity all across the board.

As the Christmas shopping season moves into high gear, it might serve…to focus on one U.S. commercial giant whose employment practices seem to conflict openly with the official teachings of the Catholic church on the right of workers to unionize. A recent issue of the New York Times and a PBS broadcast (Now With Bill Moyers) airing the same night, have highlighted some of the persistent problems that have existed between Wal-Mart, the world's largest retailer, and its hourly-wage employees.

Wal-Mart owns 3300 stores in the United States alone, and employs more than one million workers. Not one of them is a union member. According to the New York Times, unions have made only one successful effort at organizing at a Wal-Mart store in the United States - in a butchers' department in a Texas outlet. Two weeks later the company closed down the department and the employees lost their jobs.

As of early last month there have been as many as ten judgments against Wal-Mart by the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) for this single union drive in Texas. One of the most serious negative effects of Wal-Mart's militantly anti-union practices is that the wages and benefits of all workers throughout the retail industry suffer because of the depressive effect of its pay-and-benefits scale. Wal-Mart workers earn on average less than $9 an hour and $18,000 a year. As in any community, region or industry, the wage scale set by the biggest employer serves as a reference point for all other employers.

If the biggest company in an area pays well, everyone else benefits because they can point to that company as a basis for comparison. But the opposite is also true. Thus, many of Wal-Mart's unionized competitors (Sears, Kmart, Safeway, Kroger) have started demanding contract concessions, insisting that it is difficult to remain competitive when Wal-Mart's wages and benefits are often 20% below their own.

Unionized Kroger workers, for example, earn an average of $14-$17 an hour after three years, while comparable Wal-Mart employees earn $10-$12 an hour. Over the last four years alone, the NLRB has filed more than 40 complaints against Wal-Mart for illegal anti-union practices. According to these complaints, Wal-Mart has in some cases fired union supporters, intimidated workers who showed an interest in a union, threatened to deny workers their promotions or bonuses for union activities, and confiscated pro-union literature.

The Catholic church has gone on record time and again in support of unionization, beginning with Pope Leo XIII's ground-breaking encyclical Rerum Novarum ("On the Condition of the Working Person"), and then continuing for over a century into the current pontificate of John Paul II.

There are no ifs, ands or buts. According to explicit and repeated papal teaching, workers have the right to unionize. Presently, Catholics can demonstrate their fidelity to church teachings by shopping elsewhere.