The Battle of Wisconsin, Part II: Abp. Listecki Weighs In

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 [60], 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.

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Elaine Krewer

Former journalist for Catholic and secular publications. Married with one child. Illinois resident. Interests include anything related to religion, history, politics, or weather. On a scale of 0 to 100, with 0 being the farthest left/liberal you can go and 100 being the farthest right/conservative you can go, I'm probably in the 65-70 range.


  1. I’m surprised at the extent the arguments of the contributors at Catholic Vote are taken seriously in this case. Archbishop Listecki’s statements was released specifically in the context of Governor Walker’s attempt to bust the public employee unions that didn’t endorse his bid for governor. This wasn’t a May Day statement. This wasn’t an idle musing. What Catholic Vote has attempted to do is strip Listecki’s statement of its context to make exactly the opposite point of what he was making. Listecki is clearly answering in the affirmative on the rights of public workers to organize.

  2. Although the Church has been supportive of unions in theory since the papacy of Leo XIII, in practice the Church has been rather hostile to unions when the Church is the employer. Here is a link to an article on the Church and teacher labor unions in this country in 1976. The report has a strong pro-union bias, but the history it relates is accurate enough. Things tend to look different when one is the employer.


    The bishop’s statement seems anodyne enough, that I would find it hard to think of anyone who could not endorse it. That is the strength and weakness of reasonable statements, and this one is very reasonable.

  3. But hard times do not nullify the moral obligation each of us has to respect the legitimate rights of workers. … However, it is equally a mistake to marginalize or dismiss unions as impediments to economic growth.
    I’m not seeing any ambiguity there especially given the specific context in which this statement was made.

  4. On the other hand:

    “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.”

  5. You seem to be confusing hands. Collective bargaining being a right and making reasonable demands while bargaining are the same side of a single argument.

  6. There are occasions, doubtless, when it is fitting that the law should intervene to prevent certain associations, as when men join together for purposes which are evidently bad, unlawful, or dangerous to the State. In such cases, public authority may justly forbid the formation of such associations, and may dissolve them if they already exist. But every precaution should be taken not to violate the rights of individuals and not to impose unreasonable regulations under pretense of public benefit. For laws only bind when they are in accordance with right reason, and, hence, with the eternal law of God.

    Rerum Novarum 52

  7. I’m not saying public employee unions ought to all be abolished immediately — even if they never “should have” existed in the first place. As I said in another post, it took 50 years for public unions to get to this point, we can’t expect to undo it all in 5 days or even 5 months. Nor should we get too carried away with the “all unions are evil and must be destroyed” theme being pushed by some (not all) conservatives.

    What I am saying is that it isn’t necessarily heretical or contrary to Catholic teaching to believe that Catholic social doctrine may not apply the same way to public employee unions as to private employee unions.

  8. I am not in a position to judge the facts. So, I will refrain from detraction against anybody.

    Gov. Walker may be trying to balance the state budget; or he may busting public employee unions and denying them the right to collective bargaining because they supported his opponent who I BET promised them free access to the state treasury.

    Let’s take a look at the facts. How novel!

    From Instapundit and John Fund in today’s WSJ:

    “Labor historian Fred Siegel offers further reasons why unions are manning the barricades. Mr. Walker would require that public-employee unions be recertified annually by a majority vote of all their members, not merely by a majority of those that choose to cast ballots. In addition, he would end the government’s practice of automatically deducting union dues from employee paychecks. For Wisconsin teachers, union dues total between $700 and $1,000 a year.

    Fund: “’Ending dues deductions breaks the political cycle in which government collects dues, gives them to the unions, who then use the dues to back their favorite candidates and also lobby for bigger government and more pay and benefits,” Mr. Siegel told me. After New York City’s Transport Workers Union lost the right to automatic dues collection in 2007 following an illegal strike, its income fell by more than 35% as many members stopped ponying up.'”

  9. “After New York City’s Transport Workers Union lost the right to automatic dues collection in 2007 following an illegal strike, its income fell by more than 35% as many members stopped ponying up.’”

    So perhaps they didn’t want to be members. So is being coerced to join a union against CST. I suspect yes.

  10. MZ,

    The statement isn’t pro-Walker, clearly. But all he says is that people should consider the bill’s implications and the common good. Compare that with, say, the USCCB’s statements on OmbaaCare. Bishops are capable of saying outright that a bill should be rejected when they want to. That this wasn’t done here is telling.

  11. Well, if anyone is interested in what I think, here it is:

    Leo XIII was talking about organizations that look absolutely nothing like the left-wing, pro-abortion, communist-ridden, Mafia-infested rackets that call themselves labor unions today.

    “57. To sum up, then, We may lay it down as a general and lasting law that working men’s associations should be so organized and governed as to furnish the best and most suitable means for attaining what is aimed at, that is to say, for helping each individual member to better his condition to the utmost in body, soul, and property. It is clear that they must pay special and chief attention to the duties of religion and morality, and that social betterment should have this chiefly in view; otherwise they would lose wholly their special character, and end by becoming little better than those societies which take no account whatever of religion. What advantage can it be to a working man to obtain by means of a society material well-being, if he endangers his soul for lack of spiritual food? “What doth it profit a man, if he gain the whole world and suffer the loss of his soul?”(39)This, as our Lord teaches, is the mark or character that distinguishes the Christian from the heathen. “After all these things do the heathen seek . . . Seek ye first the Kingdom of God and His justice: and all these things shall be added unto you.”(40) [NOTE Leo’s total rejection of materialism, which is what every modern left-wing union is entirely about – J.H.] Let our associations, then, look first and before all things to God; let religious instruction have therein the foremost place, each one being carefully taught what is his duty to God, what he has to believe, what to hope for, and how he is to work out his salvation; and let all be warned and strengthened with special care against wrong principles and false teaching. Let the working man be urged and led to the worship of God, to the earnest practice of religion, and, among other things, to the keeping holy of Sundays and holy days. Let him learn to reverence and love holy Church, the common Mother of us all; and hence to obey the precepts of the Church, and to frequent the sacraments, since they are the means ordained by God for obtaining forgiveness of sin and for leading a holy life.”

    I mean, today’s unions couldn’t be further from this. And I think that means that they really have no inherent right to exist, public or private. Not only do these modern unions pay no attention to religion, which would be bad enough, but they positively work against it. They support every left-wing cause, including abortion, they totally oppose home-schooling and work against it (totally violating basic Church teaching on the absolute right of parents to educate their children), and they are overrun with the sort of revolutionary troublemakers that Leo XIII denounces in the same encyclical.

    So who can make a serious case for any union like that?

  12. I agree with everyone who feels that public employee unions should not exist at all. The fact that they do exist is disturbing to me. Unions are supposed to protect people from greedy corporations, but public employees work for us, the voters and the taxpayers. They are public servants, but they act like whiny brats instead.

    What if we let the military unionize and allow them to turn into spoiled brats like the teachers unions. Whos gonna tell them that theres no more money?? Next thing you know we have a coup or civil war. This isn’t Glenn beck crazy talk either.

    The communist movement has always been strong in the US, because of all the wealth and greed. Its seat of power is university campuses and things like public employee unions.

  13. I think Joe has hit the nail on the head. The unions that we have here in the US look NOTHING like the unions of old or what I believe the Popes were writing about. They are godless (except for whining about “social justice” which is code for government programs), corrupt, greedy and actually do a disservice to the people they pretend to represent. I can think of no better example than the NEA which portends to be “for the children”, but in reality are all about foisting their liberal economic and educational agenda down America’s throat. Check out the pay and benefits for the school administrators in WI.

    Wisconsin public school employee pay for the 2009-2010 school year


    I also agree with “Cupofwrath” above regarding public sector unions (with the exception of fire & police) I don’t think they should exist. I am retired military and suffered through the Carter years. Inflation was running at 20% and we were getting COLA raises of 3%. We had no union – our elected representatives were (and remain) our spokesmen. If you didn’t like it you had two choices – lump it or get out and seek other work. At the time I was about 1/3rd the way towards eligibility for retirement so I had a hard decision to make. I actually started filling out the paperwork for an early release and started looking for jobs in the civilian sector. Reagan announced his candidacy and I decided to wait it out. I was glad I did.

    As far as the private sector goes I like the idea of worker ownership as opposed to unions (distributism) but that will have to develop on a case by case basis as more and more business owners learn about it and embrace it. I do NOT think the wealth should be forcefully redistributed which is what many accuse of distributism. The best example I can give of how this would take place is the story of Jack Stack and the company SRC which has been covered by PBS. They bought a failing division of International Harvester which was going to be closed to save their own jobs and turned it into a successful employee owned company that has not only thrived but spun off several other successful companies – most are managed by former hourly employees.

    Making Use of Employees’ Talents


    The Bishops words are spot on:

    “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.”

    He provided the “what” – and “why” – it’s up to the workers and taxpayers & their representatives to figure out “how” to solve this mess. Right now it’s a circus.

  14. CST also teaches against Unions protecting their privileges and acting against the common good. Its fair to ask if teacher unions, especially now in Wisconsin, are doing this.

  15. Unions are supposed to be a negative check against excessive greed for private corporations as opposed to legitimate profit-seeking as a return on deployed capital and compensation for risk. Unions are not supposed to be designed to be a benefit for the members over and against the genuine corporate mission of providing goods and/or services to the consumer, while fairly compensating the factors of production at all levels (labor, management, investor alike).

    Since the government employees are charged with a corporate mission of serving the common good through government who are they organizing against? Government does not seek profit, unless fraud is involved, in which case it is an issue of the justice of the courts and law enforcement, which does not involve unions (labor). Government does not risk capital, it appropriates capital in order to foster a regular market, courts and the general benefit of all citizens of the jurisdiction. Such ‘services’ are limited in nature such as police, fire, courts, emergency, care for the genuinely disadvantaged (mentally and physically handicapped in certain circumstances to be determined by the representatives of the people), etc.

    People who choose to offer themselves in such service for the common good deserve a fair compensation; however, remuneration is not supposed to be the principle motive of people that provide services for the benefit of all and in such a manner that no one has a choice as to whether to acquire or pay for the service. One hopes to never need the direct service of the police or firemen, yet we all have to pay for it because anyone of us could need their help at any time. Private services are paid for directly and one can choose to acquire such services or not. It is beneficial to have a personal trainer, but it is not a common good, so the free market provides it for those who desire it and the consumer pays for it directly.

    The issue in WI is about teachers and education is a common good; however, it is one that is being provided privately and more cost-effectively and with better results than the government schools. Private police and fire have proven to be a disaster in the past and are never likely to work in the future. Yet, one can choose to supplement them with alarm monitoring companies, private security, fire prevention tools, private detectives, etc. It seems that the teachers in WI are seeking to secure privileges at the expense of all the citizens of WI with no regard for their principle duty as educators of children. Since the poor quality of government eduction can be had at higher quality privately and for less cost, it seems that this particular union is about using the force of government not for the common good, but rather to secure the privileges of small minority of so-called teachers.

    This is evident by their tactics and outside agitators including union interests, the presidents campaign arm, lying physicians providing legitimacy for an illegitimate strike, etc. As these teachers scream that they are doing it for the children they are using the children, literally by dragging them to the ‘protest’. What does this cost the common good of WI, when parents who expected their children to be at school have to take off from work or pay for other arrangements? What is this doing to the general economy of WI? Is it fair or even legal for the representatives of the people to flee to another state, not doing their jobs for the common good of WI?

    All that is being asked of these teachers is to add 5.6% to their own savings and pay a little over 12% toward their medical insurance all the while the state of WI is out of money!!!!! How is this an unreasonable request? In what way does CST endorse this self-aggrandizement?

    All the teachers should be fired for this illegal and selfish activity. there are over 15 million Americans without jobs. Could these unemployed become teachers? Can an out of work engineer teach math or physics, can a chemist without a job teach chemistry or ‘earth science’? Can an unemployed poet teach English (Ok, maybe that is a stretch but you get the idea)?

    We can twist and turn CST to mean anything we want, but these ‘protesters’ aren’t engaged in anything just by any stretch of the imagination. I think Walker hasn’t gone far enough and he should be lauded for his restraint.

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