NLRB v. Catholic Bishop of Chicago, 440 U.S. 490 (1979)

2012-08-10 15:55:03

Despite the Catholic Church’s often-eloquent advocacy of labor unions and of workers’ rights, the Catholic hierarchy of the Archdiocese of Chicago refused to accord its lay (nonclerical) faculty teaching in the Church’s primary and secondary schools the fundamental human and federal labor law right to unionize. TheChurch refused to recognize the faculty union, and, consequently, refused to bargain collectively with the union regarding the teachers’ wages, hours, and terms and conditions of employment. This bitter labor– management struggle for the better part of the decade of the 1970s resulted in a critically important case of first impression decided by the Supreme Court in 1979.

InNLRB v. Catholic Bishop of Chicago, the Supreme Court was faced with whether the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) had the authority to assert jurisdiction over labor–management relations and practices in Church-operated schools, and thus protecting the right of the teachers to unionize and to bargain collectively.

Chief Justice Burger wrote for the five-to-four majority, finding that the NLRB did not have jurisdiction to investigate the unfair labor practice charges that the teachers had brought against the Bishop, their employer, for the Church’s refusal to recognize the union in violation of the National Labor Relations Act.

The NLRB had earlier found that the Bishop had committed such unfair labor practices. The Bishop successfully challenged the NLRB’s jurisdiction over the Church as the employer of the teachers in the Church’s schools; the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Seventh Circuit in Chicago reversed the NLRB’s decision. The Supreme Court affirmed the Seventh Circuit’s decision in favor of the Catholic Bishop of Chicago.

The Supreme Court majority carefully scrutinized the legislative history of the National Labor Relations Act. Chief Justice Burger examined First Amendment separation of church and state underlying principles, summarizing that ‘‘the absence of an ‘affirmative intention of the Congress clearly expressed’ fortifies our conclusion that Congress did not contemplate that the Board would require church-operated schools to [recognize] unions as bargaining agents for their teachers.’’ Because nothing in the legislative history of the National Labor Relations Act affirmatively and expressly stated that the NLRB had jurisdiction over the labor relations of church-operated schools, the Court majority concluded that the board lacked jurisdiction.

Chief Justice Burger concluded:

Accordingly, in the absence of a clear expression of Congress’ intent to bring teachers in church-operated schools within the jurisdiction of the Board, we decline to construe the [National Labor Relations] Act in a manner that could in turn call upon the Court to resolve difficult and sensitive questions arising out of the guarantees of the First Amendment religion clauses.

The dissent by Justice Brennan, joined by Justices White, Marshall, and Blackmun, excoriated the majority for neglecting the history of the broad authority of the NLRB over labor–management relations.

The Catholic Church first addressed the rights of workers during the Industrial Revolution. Pope Leo XIII wrote the first great labor encyclical in 1891, Rerum Novarum, On the Condition of the Working Class. This landmark encyclical recognized the primacy of human labor as ends over the means of capital. Pope Leo demanded that the human, civil, and labor rights of workers and their families be protected, including the right to unionize, and the right to just wages and safe working conditions. Virtually every Pope since Leo XIII has reiterated and reaffirmed these rights, perhaps most eloquently Pope John Paul II. In 1981, he commemorated the ninetieth anniversary of Rerum Novarum with his encyclical Laborem Exercens, On Human Work. He insisted on the fundamental dignity and rights of workers, and the subordination of the means of capital to the proper ends of human needs. Pope John Paul also acknowledged the importance of unions and the effectiveness of the strike mechanism in labor disputes. In the pastoral letter on Catholic social teaching and the American economy in 1986, Economic Justice for All, the U.S. Conference of Bishops demanded that all church institutions fully recognize the rights of employees to organize and bargain collectively. Thus, the labor rights for all workers were advocated with specificity by the bishops to protect those working in Church-related institutions.

In light of the Church’s unequivocal and powerful pro-labor social teaching, the Chicago Bishop case is particularly pernicious for the cause of human, civil, and labor rights. The Church hierarchy in Chicago took advantage of First Amendment constitutional law in order to avoid collective bargaining with its lay faculty school teachers, blatantly contrary to the Church’s century of social and labor teachings.

The Church as an employer has continued to rely on the precedent of NLRB v. Catholic Bishop of Chicago. This hypocrisy is glaringly obvious. Catholic employers must courageously begin to practice what the Church has continuously preached. Only then can Catholic labor theory begin to fulfill its promise to transform both itself and the workforce, and to enhance and further human, civil, and labor rights.

Meanwhile, the pernicious ramifications of this decision extend far beyond the labor–management relations within Catholic schools. Indeed, all employees within religiously-affiliated institutions, ranging from hospitals to homeless shelters, can be deprived of their rights to unionize and to bargain collectively under the National Labor Relations Act, trumped by the First Amendment potential for excessive entanglement of government oversight with the internal practices and beliefs of the religiously affiliated employer.


References and Further Reading

  • Gregory, David L., Catholic Labor Theory and the Transformation of Work, Washington and Lee Law Review 45 (1988): 119.
  • ———, Catholic Social Teaching on Work, Labor Law Journal 49 (1998): 912.
  • Gregory, David L., and Charles J. Russo, The First Amendment and the Labor Relations of Religiously-Affiliated Employers, Boston University Public Interest Law Journal 8 (1999): 612.
  • Note: NLRB Regulation of Parochial Schools: A Practical Free Exercise Accommodation, Yale Law Journal 97 (1987): 135.
  • Pope Leo XIII. ‘‘Rerum Novarum (On the Condition of Labor).’’ 1891. Papal Encyclicals Online.
  • Pope John Paul II. ‘‘Laborem Exercens (Concerning Human Work).’’ 1981. Papal Encyclicals Online.
  • U.S.National Conference of Catholic Bishops. Economic Justice for All: Pastoral Letter on Catholic Social Teaching and the U.S. Economy. 1986. Catholic Social Teaching, Office for Social Justice.

Cases and Statutes Cited

  • U.S. Const., First Amendment
  • National Labor Relations Act, 28 U.S.C. 151 et seq.

See also Religion in the Workplace