An End of Earnestness: What Happens When Labor and Politics Collide?

In his Statement Regarding the Rights of Workers and the Value of Unions, Milwaukee Archbishop Jerome Listecki has rightly re-iterated the Church’s long held teaching on the rights of workers to organize into unions and associations and enter into collectively bargain agreements.

From Abp. Listecki

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]

Looking at the historic document, Rerum Novarum, the teachings of the Catholic Church are clear

Rerum 45

Let the working man and the employer make free agreements, and in particular let them agree freely as to the wages; nevertheless, there underlies a dictate of natural justice more imperious and ancient than any bargain between man and man, namely, that wages ought not to be insufficient to support a frugal and well-behaved wage-earner.

tempered with

Rerum 60
the condition of the working classes is the pressing question of the hour, and nothing can be of higher interest to all classes of the State than that it should be rightly and reasonably settled. But it will be easy for Christian working men to solve it aright if they will form associations, choose wise guides, and follow on the path which with so much advantage to themselves and the common weal was trodden by their fathers before them. Prejudice, it is true, is mighty, and so is the greed of money; but if the sense of what is just and rightful be not deliberately stifled, their fellow citizens are sure to be won over to a kindly feeling towards men whom they see to be in earnest as regards their work

So what happens when those being in “earnest as regards their work” turn out to be not so earnest? Say they want to retire at age 49, with full benefits and pension, so they can sit around the tavern and joyfully celebrate their lack of earnestness? Who is best in the position to judge and negotiate with the high number of formerly earnest who have decided that their earnest days are over?

In Wisconsin, and most other places, government entities negotiate with government unions. The Government entities consist of school boards, governors, and legislators who are elected and dependent upon the support of government unions for their election. We get ourselves in such a fix when we no longer have a adversarial relationship between employer and employed, but rather an adversarial relationship pitting employer and employed against the taxpayer, who pays the bills for both the employer and the employed.

Wisconsin Governor Walker has called for a partial end (benefits only) to collective bargaining for some Wisconsin Government Unions, not coincidentally the same Unions who financed his opponents in the Wisconsin Governor’s race. There is a level of political common sense here, (why should Governor Walker support the same people who are trying to defeat him?) that makes his efforts very clear.

However, the thornier question remains, people of good will, using the Catechism as their guide, support collective bargaining for workers. Collective bargaining fails when there is a financial crisis and participants decline to bargain in good will. How does the Catechism square with a typically sympathetic party (the wage earner) taking an abusive share of the employment bargain while taxpayers are literally pushed to the breaking point?

Re-reading Rerum, it does not seem directed at Government Unions. The bargaining power of politicians is very different than that of private employers. In a private employment contract, there is always the opportunity to opt-out if a stakeholder feels he is being abused by one party or another (prices too high for a Cadillac -> buy a Hyundai). However for a State employment contract, a major stakeholder is not given the opportunity to opt-out of the deal. If you don’t like your public school, you still have to pay for it, for example.

The Church’s teachings are timeless and comprehensive. Yet the application of the teachings needs further study in specific regard to Government Unions. Abp. Listecki is quite right to emphasize the teachings of the Church with regard to labor rights. However, it can certainly within reason to discuss, is it labor or a political squabble that is in play here?

image Bel Canto Chorus at St. Josaphat’s Basilica, Milwaukee Wisconsin



  • John Powers

    I am an occasional contributor to CVA and a small businessman in the packaging industry. I also have observed over the years a good number of people retiring around age 50 from State and Government positions to lead lives of leisure, while their fellow workers, myself included are left to support them in their relative youth. Teachers, Highway Workers, Transportation Workers…they are all covered because they have wielded political power, not because of any necessities of the job.

    My point in bringing this up is that an adversarial negotiation tends NOT to lead to a large number of 50 year old retirees living off the toils of others. Rather, people tend to work if they have to support themselves.

    Since at least 1 party, and many times both political parties are fully captured by Government Unions, I think it is worth considering how Catholic Social Teachings are applicable at Government/Political Employees Unions, rather than Unions within private industry, which is their clear intent.

  • Greg Smith

    Mr. Powers: In all “Earneastness” Usually we get a brsf bio on guest blogers here but I can’t find any info on your background. Part of your essey is an ad hominum atack on public workers, you know the folks who haul away your trash, come to you or your loved ones are in a traffic accident, scoop up criminals scouting your block for possible targets etc. You know, the ones you don’t associate with socially in fields of work your children won’t go into. 25 year retirement is usually reserved for Public Safety workers. Yes – If a cop is hired at 21 (Rare) he can often retire at 49. Most stay on longer because they are committed to the mission (A concept alien to the down town SF Lawyers I know who swith firms and the drop of a $40,000 increase)and because retirement doesn’t max out till 30 years on te job. Maybe you plan to ” sit around the tavern and joyfully celebrate (your) lack of earnestness?” One retired firefighter I know works full time doung maintenance at out parish for minimum wage and another started a private inverstigaion firm that employs 8 people. So who are you and what work have you done of over your years.

  • William

    The average teacher salary in Milwaukee is some $50,000+ per year; and on top of that, another $50,000+ benefits package–per year. $100.000 a year! Anybody you know making that kind of money? The school system (MPS) in that fair city is and has been for decades in an utter state of failure; the teacher unions have obstructed any positive change. Now you know why the teachers are playing hooky and marching trough Madison under the union’s red banners. The days of pigging out at the public trough are over as there is just nothing left for them to slurp up. The voters of Wisconsin sent Scott Walker to Madison to turn things around; but the liberals, egged on by WPR (Wisconsin Public Radio)rally to thwart the will of the people.

    • Greg Smith

      50 K Base Pay for a teacher at the top of the scale. Low for here in expensive SF but reasonable in Milwalkie. Benfits adding up to equal base pay? Hard to imagine. Can you break down the addiotional 50K?

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