In response to continuing protests against (and some in favor of) Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker’s proposal to severely restrict public employee bargaining rights, Archbishop Jerome Listecki of Milwaukee issued the following statement on Feb. 16:
The Church is well aware that difficult economic times call for hard choices and financial responsibility to further the common good. Our own dioceses and parishes have not been immune to the effects of the current economic difficulties. But hard times do not nullify the moral obligation each of us has to respect the legitimate rights of workers. As Pope Benedict wrote in his 2009 encyclical, Caritas in veritate:
Governments, for reasons of economic utility, often limit the freedom or the negotiating capacity of labor unions. Hence traditional networks of solidarity have more and more obstacles to overcome. The repeated calls issued within the Church’s social doctrine, beginning with Rerum Novarum , for the promotion of workers’ associations that can defend their rights must therefore be honored today even more than in the past, as a prompt and far-sighted response to the urgent need for new forms of cooperation at the international level, as well as the local level. [#25]
It does not follow from this that every claim made by workers or their representatives is valid. Every union, like every other economic actor, is called to work for the common good, to make sacrifices when required, and to adjust to new economic realities.
However, it is equally a mistake to marginalize or dismiss unions as impediments to economic growth. As Pope John Paul II wrote in 1981, “[a] union remains a constructive factor of social order and solidarity, and it is impossible to ignore it.” (Laborem exercens #20, emphasis in original)
It is especially in times of crisis that “new forms of cooperation” and open communication become essential. We request that lawmakers carefully consider the implications of this proposal and evaluate it in terms of its impact on the common good. We also appeal to everyone –lawmakers, citizens, workers, and labor unions – to move beyond divisive words and actions and work together, so that Wisconsin can recover in a humane way from the current fiscal crisis.
Abp. Listecki here reiterates what has been standard Catholic teaching for more than a century regarding the right of workers to form unions. He seems to be taking a reasonable middle ground between those whose loyalty to unions trumps all other considerations, and those who insist that all unions are merely “impediments to economic growth” that should be abolished.
Reaction to his statement has, predictably, fallen along political lines. Catholic clergy and those of other faiths in Wisconsin and Illinois have publicly offered “sanctuary” to 14 Democratic legislators that fled the Badger State on Thursday to prevent the quorum needed for a vote on the union bill.
Meanwhile, more conservative Catholics such as Joshua Mercer , John Powers, and Thomas Peters question whether Catholic teaching on the right to organize actually applies to public employee unions. Does that, as some commenters claim, make them exactly the kind of fake “catholycs” or dissenters they accuse liberals of being on issues such as abortion and same-sex marriage? I wouldn’t jump to that conclusion, for several reasons.
When Catholic social teaching on labor issues was solidified in Rerum Novarum (1891) and Quadragesimo Anno (1931), unions in the U.S. and elsewhere existed entirely for the purpose of negotiating with private employers. The wealth and power that such employers enjoyed at the time, and the few if any legal limits on how much they could demand from workers, made unions the only practical means for workers to seek redress of abuses. Rerum Novarum, for example, was written at a time when now-illegal practices such as 6- or 7-day work weeks, 12-hour days or longer, and child labor were still widespread. Today, there are many more legal protections for workers, and the labor movement can justly claim credit for them.
However, public employee unions as we know them in the United States didn’t exist when these encyclicals were written — the first such union, the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees (AFSCME), was formed in (you guessed it) Madison, Wis. in 1935. Not until the 1960s did the federal government and some states legally recognize public employee unions.
The wisdom or necessity of forming public employee unions was questioned even among figures who strongly supported the labor movement in general — such as Franklin D. Roosevelt, Fiorello LaGuardia, and AFL-CIO president George Meany. All of them recognized that there was a fundamental difference between private employers answerable to no one but themselves and their stockholders, and public agencies ultimately accountable to voters and taxpayers. It’s not unreasonable or heretical to think that the difference should also be recognized in Catholic teaching.
Also, Catholic teaching, as its name implies, must be universal and broad enough to encompass situations that could arise anywhere in the world, not only in the United States. Figuring out how that teaching applies to particular situations in our own country, state or community is the job of local bishops, like Abp. Listecki, and of well-formed Catholic laity — ideally including public officials and union leaders themselves. Unfortunately, well-formed and loyal Catholic laity seem to be an endangered species among the latter two groups. But that’s a topic for another day.
However one feels about public employee unions or about what’s happening in Madison, I think we can all agree with the Archbishop’s closing statement calling for lawmakers and others to “carefully consider the implications of this proposal and evaluate it in terms of its impact on the common good.” Let us pray earnestly that they do so.