Since the height of the industrial revolution in the late 19th century, when what we now call Catholic social teaching was first articulated, popes and bishops have been speaking out forcefully on a wide range of issues, none more frequently than the rights of workers. Underlying the Church’s insistence on workers’ rights is the unwavering demand that social activity—whether by the state, or civil society, or individuals—must uphold the dignity of the human person and serve the common good.
The right of workers to unionize derives from the dignity of the human person and from the corresponding defense of the natural right of free association. When Pope Leo XIII made this argument in his 1891 encyclical Rerum Novarum, it was hardly conventional wisdom. Rather it was a sharp challenge to the inhumane working conditions of the day.
Of course, the right of association is not absolute. Monopolies and cartels are strongly discouraged in most markets, and rightly so. Likewise, the right of workers to form associations does not liberate unions from meeting the same requirements of law and justice as the companies for which their members work. The legitimate rights of workers do not justify an attitude of unfettered entitlement any more than the legitimate right to private property justifies corporate greed.
One of the great successes in American life has been the lifting of much of the “working class”—including millions of Catholic immigrants—into the ranks of the middle class. Gone are the squalid conditions and inhuman toil described in Upton Sinclair’s, The Jungle. For that, the unions deserve a great share of the credit. But if the 20th century successes of the labor movement vindicate the Catholic Church’s ardent support of workers’ rights, surely they do not also absolve unions from continued moral scrutiny in a radically changed economy.
Which brings us to the matter of the Chicago Teachers Union and the ongoing strike by the highest paid teachers in the country. The teachers refused a 16% salary increase over 4 years, deciding to strike despite the fact that, according to CTU’s own president, Karen Lewis, negotiations were “productive.” Some 350,000 kids aren’t at school today because of the strike.
Lewis indicates that the fundamental disagreement with the school board is not salaries. “Recognizing the Board’s fiscal woes, we are not far apart on compensation. However, we are apart on benefits. We want to maintain the existing health benefits.” This is becoming an ever more common tale. From the bluest of blue states like New Jersey and Massachussetts, to Midwest swing states like Ohio and Wisconsin, to reliably red states like Indiana, the question of health and retirement benefits for public workers (including teachers) is crying for reform.
That Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel—no right-winger to be sure—would be willing to tangle with the powerful teachers union demonstrates just how massive are the challenges posed by public employee benefits. John Fund at National Review, puts the Chicago case in perspective with a few numbers: “Teachers pay only 3 percent of their health-care costs and out of every new dollar set aside for public education in Illinois in the last five years, a full 71 cents has gone to teacher retirement costs.”
Another point of contention between the city and the teachers is job-security and job-performance evaluations. Fund has some interesting stats on that, too, “Just 15 percent of fourth graders [in Chicago public schools] are proficient in reading and only 56 percent of students who enter their freshman year of high school wind up graduating.” Clearly something isn’t working, but the union and the school board disagree about the best way to regard good teachers while replacing ineffective ones.
I’m not interested in mediating the dispute between the City of Chicago and its teachers. I simply want to make two points about the Catholic understanding of such disputes. First, Catholic social teaching demands that union activities—including strikes—must always be judged according to the demands of the common good. Here’s Pope John Paul II addressing the question of the workers’ right to strike in his 1981 encyclical, Laborem Exercens:
One method used by unions in pursuing the just rights of their members is the strike or work stoppage, as a kind of ultimatum to the competent bodies, especially the employers. This method is recognized by Catholic social teaching as legitimate in the proper conditions and within just limits. In this connection workers should be assured the right to strike, without being subjected to personal penal sanctions for taking part in a strike. While admitting that it is a legitimate means, we must at the same time emphasize that a strike remains, in a sense, an extreme means. It must not be abused; it must not be abused especially for “political” purposes. Furthermore it must never be forgotten that, when essential community services are in question, they must in every case be ensured, if necessary by means of appropriate legislation. Abuse of the strike weapon can lead to the paralysis of the whole of socioeconomic life, and this is contrary to the requirements of the common good of society, which also corresponds to the properly understood nature of work itself.
A second point related to the first: public-sector workers have rights, but unlike their private-sector counterparts, they are not pitting their interests against other private interests. Instead, public-sector unions pit their interests and the interests of their members against the duly-elected representatives of the people and their appointees. Simply put, public-sector unions have a fundamentally different relationship with their employers than private-sector unions precisely because of who sits across the negotiating table. The principle of subsidiarity requires us to differentiate between private associations and government. Accordingly, it would seem that unions do not have the same rights with respect to both private and public employers.
More work is needed to flesh out the difference between the two kinds of labor organizations, a distinction which, to the best of my knowledge, Catholic social teaching has never addressed directly. For economic and demographic reasons, such disputes are likely to become more common, not less, in the years ahead.
Meanwhile, lets pray for a speedy—and just—resolution to the strike in Chicago.
Stephen P. White is a fellow in Catholic Studies at the Ethics and Public Policy Center in Washington, DC and coordinator of the Tertio Millennio Seminar on the Free Society. The views expressed here are his own.