Milwaukee Archbishop Jerome E. Listecki sent a letter to Wisconsin legislators who are grappling with a massive budget shortfall. Because lawmakers there are considering changes to the benefits paid to public service employees, Archbishop Listecki outlined the Catholic position on labor and the right to unionize.
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.
I agree with the Archbishop on this 100%. One cannot use economic hard times as an excuse to persecute or mistreat workers. But that won’t be happening to state employees in Wisconsin. As Thomas pointed out, government workers in Wisconsin are simply being asked to contribute to their health care and pension plans in rates similar to workers in the private sector. This is perfectly fair. In fact, it would be rather unfair for government workers to demand this extraordinarily generous benefits package when 9-10% of their neighbors can’t even get a job. (And many more who have quit looking.)
Archbishop Listecki also stated that requests for a just wage should not be dismissed simply because they could cut into profits.
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)
This is also very true. People have to be given the opportunity to work for a just wage so they can provide for their families. Forming a union protects workers from possible abuses. While Pope John Paul II likely had private unions and not public-sector unions in mind, this principle still applies: You can’t balance a budget by breaking the backs of your employees. But again, government workers in Wisconsin won’t be oppressed if they’re simply being asked to adjust their benefits so they’re more in line with jobs in the private sector.
That leaves us with two questions: Should public employees be able to engage in collective bargaining? and Do government workers have a right to strike?
Archbishop Listecki quotes Pope Benedict in 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]
Workers in the private sector have certainly used collective bargaining to address workplace conditions and just wages. Currently, public sector employees in Wisconsin have this tool in all of their negotiations. Gov. Scott Walker’s plan would restrict collective bargaining for state employees to wages alone. But it’s important to note that a lack of collective bargaining isn’t proof that government workers are being mistreated.
And if they think they’re being mistreated, they have other options. If government employees feel they’re state agency isn’t paying them properly, they can take their case to the Legislature. If they are ignored there, the workers can they can take their case to the media. They can also knock on doors and take their case directly to their fellow citizens who can send new lawmakers to the Legislature. But what they cannot do is strike.
Justice demands that essential services are not delayed or denied because government workers refuse to work. It is unacceptable to stop putting out fires or patrolling the streets because you’ve gone on strike. Teachers cannot quit their jobs and leave parents scrambling because they can’t drop their kids off at school.
Back in the 1970s, public sector employees in New York City went on strike and the trash piled up. Who suffered? The citizens. The politicians cried uncle and the trash workers all got ridiculous salaries. The politicians should have privatized garbage removal. But even as important as trash removal is, that can be done by the private sector. What if Postal workers went on strike and shut down our mail system? Grandma wouldn’t get her Social Security check.
If government workers in Wisconsin refuse to plow snow off the roads or protect their neighbor’s homes from fires, then they are a threat to the common good. Right now teachers in Wisconsin have en masse called in sick. It’s a big nuisance. But if they persist, then Gov. Scott Walker should fire them. Whether to allow government workers to engage in collective bargaining is a prudential matter. But public employees cannot hold their neighbors hostage by going on strike.