Union Rights and Responsibilities

The Cardinal Newman Society pointed out the other day that a slew of Jesuits at Marquette University wanted Gov. Walker of Wisconsin recalled. When asked why they did so, the spokesman for the Province would only confirm the signature of one of the Jesuit professors at Marquette and then referred the inquiring reporter to Forming Consciences for Faithful Citizenship (FC), the USCCB document on Catholic voting. Presumably, the Jesuits are appealing to the document’s position on unions in light of Gov. Walker’s ending the collective bargaining rights for most public sector unions.

Color me old-fashioned, but I’ve thought for years that it helps to actually read documents. So what do the bishops actually say about unions?

The first mention in the document has employers responsible for many things including allowing their workers to join a union. But then the bishops note that workers have responsibilities too. They write:

“Workers also have responsibilities—to provide a fair day’s work for a fair day’s pay, to treat employers and co-workers with respect, and to carry out their work in ways that contribute to the common good. Workers, employers, and unions should not only advance their own interests, but also work together to advance economic justice and the well-being of all.”

Please notice that employees and employers have a responsibility to the common good, to the “well-being of all.” This is important because the Holy Fathers like to remind us through Catholic social teaching that with rights come responsibilities. Pope Benedict put it this way in Caritas in veritate:

“Hence it is important to call for a renewed reflection on how rights presuppose duties, if they are not to become mere licence.”

The footnote after this line leads us to Blessed Pope John Paul II’s statement for the 2003 World Day of Peace. He said, recounting Blessed John XXIII’s wonderful document Pacem in terris, that

With the profound intuition that characterized him, John XXIII identified the essential conditions for peace in four precise requirements of the human spirit: truth, justice, love and freedom. Truth will build peace if every individual sincerely acknowledges not only his rights, but also his own duties towards others. Justice will build peace if in practice everyone respects the rights of others and actually fulfils his duties towards them. Love will build peace if people feel the needs of others as their own and share what they have with others, especially the values of mind and spirit which they possess. Freedom will build peace and make it thrive if, in the choice of the means to that end, people act according to reason and assume responsibility for their own actions.

Rights and duties, obligations and responsibilities go together. So when the bishops write about laborers and their responsibility towards the “well-being of all” they really mean it.

The bishops mention unions again later in FC and state that

Catholic social teaching supports the right of workers to choose whether to organize, join a union, and bargain collectively, and to exercise these rights without reprisal. It also affirms economic freedom, initiative, and the right to private property. Workers, owners, employers, and unions should work together to create decent jobs, build a more just economy, and advance the common good.

Again, with every right is a responsibility. Do the laborers of Wisconsin’s public sector have the right to bargain collectively? “Yes, they do,” says the Church.

Gov. Scott Walker

But don’t they also have the responsibility to “advance the common good”? “Yes, they do,” says the Church.

So who’s in charge of maintaining the common good, you ask? Well according to Catholic social teaching it’s the State.

Ahh, so here we get to the fundamental question. What happens when the State determines that employees, their own in this case, are failing to advance the common good? What if the State determines that the lack of accountability for workers, years of systemic underperformance as well as political corruption actually does real harm to the common good? What then?

Catholic social teaching is clear and consistent on this point. When your right gets in the way of the common good then your right may be trumped. In Rerum novarum Pope Leo XIII defended the natural right of private property against the Socialists. However, he admits that private property is not an absolute right. When the Fathers of the Second Vatican Council explained the right of religious liberty, even they provided the qualifying “within due limits.” If you fail your duty, you could lose your right.

The people of Wisconsin, despite what the good Jesuits at Marquette might have hoped, have determined that the current situation with the public sector union is hurting the common good. One way this happens is that the employer who gets the short end of any union abuse is the State itself, i.e. the body charged with maintaining that common good.

Here, then, is the moral of the story. Laborers have a right to unionize and to collectively bargain. They may not abuse that right at the expense of the common good. What union leaders in this country need to learn, as well as Catholics who defend unions, is that belonging to a union does not inoculate one from, you know, SIN. Union leaders and members are not as pure as the wind-driven snow. Unions are populated by people who are prone to the very same vices as the employers who can and have and do abuse workers. Therefore, belonging to unions does not exempt one from criticism, and being Catholic does not mean you have to blindly support unions.

My hope is that for the sake of the great tradition for unions in Catholic social teaching , Catholics like the Jesuits at Marquette can advise unions to avoid the harms to the common good that the people of Wisconsin have noticed again and again and again and again….



  • bpeters1

    Thoughtful article. Here’s my question: It sounds, from above (“What happens when the State determines that employees, their own in this case, are failing to advance the common good?“), like the State’s the one determining whether the “common good” is being met — and if it is not being met, according to the State’s judgment, the “right” to unionize can be legitimately squashed. What happens if “the State” (or, more specifically, its leaders) holds commitments to a political theory (say, laissez faire capitalism) which sees most if not all union activity as detrimental to the common good? Then it would seem that de facto elimination of unions in laissez faire capitalist States would be supported by CST (which is absurd). (And I don’t think that this thought-experiment is that “out there”, given the tendencies of many in the Tea Party toward laissez faire capitalism). In other words, it seems that the logic above gives a free-pass to States with inimical attitudes toward unions in the first place to eliminate them. So long as “common good” is judged through the a lens which colors an unregulated free market rosy, I don’t know how such a slippery slope is avoidable. It seems that a proper application of CST requires the reverse: judging the free market through the lens of the common good (as described in CST) — in which case massive deregulation and the general economic vision heralded by many in the Tea Party are already out of bounds.

    • Omar Gutierrez

      Good comment bpeters1, this is why the common good cannot be determined solely by the State. I wrote that the State maintains the common good and so there is some determinative aspect there, but the common good also includes questions of culture which are up to you and me, to families and intermediary institutions. Is there a slippery slope here? Sure there is. Such is the nature of human existence. The flip side is that if the State does not have any right to defend the common good against the abuses of unions then the unions get a “free pass.” As with so much of CST, there is a balance that must be struck. Laissez faire capitalism, or the “unbridled capitalism” condemned by Pius XI will not serve the common good ultimately. So that I think you are right to argue that such a situation would tend towards the abuse of laborers and unions. But we cannot throw the baby out with the bathwater, or to put it otherwise abusus non tolit usus – the abuse of a thing does not negate its use.

      • bpeters1

        Thanks for the response — finding that happy medium/balance in which respects the dignity and rights of individuals persons/groups and simultaneously promotes the common good of all is the essential, always contentious, and rather elusive heart of CST. It’s nice to read a poster on this blog say, “Laissez faire capitalism, or the ‘unbridled capitalism’ condemned by Pius XI will not serve the common good ultimately.” Statements like this which recognize this danger on the far political “right” make defenses of a sensible “right” far more credible.

        • Joe M

          What version of laissez faire capitalism does not include democratic mechanisms to settle legislation? In other words, people collectively joining together (in unions or to vote) to make change is not contrary to the concept of capitalism. My reading of Pius XI is that moral considerations should be doing the bridling. Not some non-descript contra-capitalist legislation or group. — It stands today that the mechanisms for change are in place. The Walker reforms could be reversed as quickly as they were put into place via the same process. And they should be if they are ever used to create a grievance. However, when unions are inflicting the grievance, bridling morals apply to them too. On that basis, the tax payers of Wisconsin are justified in collectively bargaining for themselves through voting for reforms.

        • Steve

          We haven’t had anything like laissez faire capitalism in this country in nearly a century. Instead we have had a steadily encroaching socialism with a hostility to the individual initiative and liberties which are the hallmark of our material success.Our continued success, not only materially, but morally and spiritually as well, requires rolling back a bloated federal government and the nanny state mentality.

    • MJS

      You bring a good point about unions and capitalism. However, when your speaking about companies and employees in the private sector, you cannot apply the same thinking and theories to public sector. The reason being is that private companies earn a profit. Workers and their representatvies work out agreements between management or owners of the company. Then, they can come to an equitable agreement. But, you fail to mention all the that private unions have given up to keep their jobs and the company they work for profitable. The good old days, which many would debate weren’t so good, are not feasible with the global economy and the competition. Labor is your biggest cost in any business. Now, let’s look at public unions, which, if you think about it, do they really need unions? One could argue that the firemen/women and police do need unions so they do not become tools of politicians. All state governments have labor boards and labor laws, which, they stronly enforce on the private industries. So, why do public workers need protection from the ones enforcing the fair labor laws and practices? Also, public sector unions do not negotiate with management, they get their very nice salaries, benefits and retirement set by politicians that were backed and supported by the unions that they negotiate with. That seems to be unethical all in itself. It’s a perfect scam and ponsi scheme. If you look into the Wisconsin situation you will find that the budget has a surplus, no union employees were let go and the state taxpayers are getting relief. This is what I would term as everyone winning and the state looking out for the common good. Also, go to twitter and see all the death threats from union workers. It’s sad. Public workers have had it very good for a long time. Please don’t use “we’ve had our incomes cut”, everyone has. If the union workers are so concerened about income, maybe they should ask their “leader” to cut their pay, which puts the union leaders in that dreaded 1%. Or, maybe ask for some of your union dues back, since they was the majority of it on buying campaign ads Sadly, the dance is over and now the band wants to be paid.

  • Malt

    Thank you, sir, for an excellent Catholic defense of Gov. Walker’s policies that I have had trouble articulating. You are a calm, collected, and fine writer.

    • Omar Gutierrez

      Thanks to you Malt for the kind words. Your name reminds me, though, of the line from Houseman, “Malt does more than Milton can to justify God’s ways to man.” Thanks again for the encouragement.

  • Josephine

    Official pronouncements of the Church and its documents on this subject(and on a few other politically charged subjects) always seem to need a translator. At minimum is needed certainly a cascade of articles and frequently even a panel discussion or two, to decipher. Either these documents are delivered up to be so simple that they are vague, leaving some of us scratching our heads, or so complex, broad and wide, and deep, that they explode all over the field, but entirely miss the target–if the target is actually that of informing or catachizing the laity.

    Unions are seen as nearly organized front groups for communists, Marxists, socialists, and radicals who have highjacked the terminology of the Catholic Church along with many of its broader charitable themes, all in order to intimidate, bully and threaten others outside the union to “pay up”. Like the taxpayers, for instance, in the case of public unions.

    As a relatively new Catholic, I have had more exposure to the term “social justice” from the Pelosi types than from the Church, but the Church doesn’t seem to mind; on the one hand said to deplore socialism, and on the other entertaining without incident those American priests and Bishops who sympathize, empathize and rationalize the actions and points of view of clearly socialist.

    I just don’t quite get it, but I do usually find that the parameters, the definitions and the distortions on these political questions and on these well politicized issues are profligated by few of the faithful, and instead mostly by lay Catholics, or those who are not Catholic at all. There is little debate when only one view of only one side of any issue is defended and excused.

    Immigration is one. Good Bishops have preached human dignity, charity, etc., on the immigration issue. I have heard nothing from the same Bishops that addresses the ILLEGAL part of illegal immigration, or a nation’s right to its borders, a right to reasonable and orderly process for crossing those borders, the expense and increasing social burden of citizens carrying the financial burden for these “visitors” who avert from the process.
    Everything is one sided here. Spending other peoples money will soon be coming to an unceremonious end when it runs out.

    • Perry

      Well said.

  • Carl

    To my mind saying that this squabble was all about collective bargaining rights is the same as saying the Church’s squabble with the government is all about contraception. There is much more to both stories.

    The way I understand it the public service unions in Wisconsin can still bargain for salaries, but not for other benifits. I also understand that no public employee has lost his or her job over this whole affair. So, what was all the fuss about.

  • Robert

    This is a great article! I come from a working class family, but (no doubt because of our Catholic faith) I was taught as a worker you are to be honest and do your best always. The potential problems with unions today is that they do think they are an absolute right to everything they fight for. The problem is, like virtually all lobbying groups today, is that they get too caught up with their own special interests and totally neglect what is good for the body. Employers do this too, but now unions and employers have almost equal power–and it’s all directed inward and not at the common good. The Church is correct again.

    • G. Orville

      Well, the state also long ago determined that women have the right to abortion so don’t so quickly consign the state to being the ultimate arbiter of moral authority and the common good. And let’s remember that about 800,000 less people voted in this election than in 2008 when Obama won Wisconsin by 14% of the vote. And there were other issues involved in people’s deciding to vote for which candidate (or not voting), so it wasn’t simply a referendum on public unions. Why are workers here on this website always depicted as being the only folks in the equation prone to sinfulness? I can think of more than a few politicians, corporate executives, lobbyists, etc. who seem mighty sinful to me.

      • Omar Gutierrez

        G. Orville, I don’t presume the State is the “ultimate arbiter of moral authority and the common good.” What the popes have said consistently is the that reason the State exists is to maintain the common good. That’s why it exists. I agree with you that there will always be a tension there. The State can make mistakes about what is for the common good. But that’s why Catholics need to stay involved in the political process. Nothings is going to be perfect.

  • Braden

    Can you actually demonstrate with ACTUAL EXAMPLES how specific union negotiations have hurt the public good in Wisconsin? No one on this site can actually point out specific decisions by unions that have done this.

    • Robert

      Unions in get make it very difficult to fire bad workers, they promote an artificial egalitarianism among workers and production (same wages regardless of quality of work), they demand higher wages even when the whole body is hurting (in a recession)and that hurts everyone becasue prices and cost of living goes up. In short, and in very general terms, they think only of themselves and are often oblivious to the problems and concerns that are not directly affecting them. The problem is, almost all people in power do this now (including the employers). So unfortunately, even though there was nothing wrong with what Wisconsin did, it was too little, too late. I predict this will do little to solve the real problem at any real rate because it will take a complete overhaul of our culture back to Gospel principles–not the unholy trinity that we promote across the culture today: ME, MYSELF, I.
      This is my humble opinion.
      Peace, Braden.

    • Paul

      When the state has to pay an “unfair” portion of worker’s pension, healthcare, fraudulent overtime pay, etc. to union employees it is taking away from other services that would have been provided to the general population (public good). Additionally, since these reforms were enacted the state budget has improved, unemployment has decreased and Wisconsin is now in a better financial state to provide government services to its people (improving public good). I hope that answers your question.

      • Braden

        Those are not examples of when the union has negotiated in bad faith. Those are examples of contracts the state agreed to, in solid economic times. So, we’ll try again. Someone point out actual specific negotiations in recent history when unions in Wisconsin negotiated in bad faith.

        • Omar Gutierrez

          Braden, I’d point out first that your original commment asked for examples where union choices have hurt the public good. Now that those have been provided you, you’ve moved the goal posts and now insist on example of “bad faith” negotiation. I don’t claim in my post that there has been such bad faith activity – if by bad faith you mean the willfull desire on the part of unions to harm the common good. And I agree with you that the State agreed to these contracts. But now the State reconizes that the status quo objectively hurts the common good…concrete examples of which Robert and Paul have provided. Are you suggesting that harm to the common good should be accepted so long as the unions didn’t mean for bad things to happen? Objective harm of union tactics is demonstrable and its everywhere. Watch the documentaries Waiting for Superman and The Lottery.

          • Joe M

            It’s important to point out that “the State” that agreed to the contracts, in most cases, is a politician hand-picked and paid by the unions. Getting paid back for political support is not an example of a negotiation. It’s collusion. — That’s the problem with Braden’s line of questioning. It’s not difficult to never say no to cuts when you are rarely if ever asked to make them. The cuts that unions have made noise about often come in the form of proposals from minority parties or other private criticisms. Unions have been very good at killing such proposals and ideas before someone is even in a position to officially negotiate them. Additionally, in many cases, they have established closed-door policies so that the public doesn’t even get to see what the unions, whom they are paying, are saying in negotiations.

          • Braden

            Omar-you assume that the union would never negotiate cuts once the economy turned. Why does the union not have the right to negotiate cuts, in light of bad economic times? I will ask again–offer proof that the union WILL NOT negotiate cuts. That’s the only way you can say they should lose the right just because the economy is bad. I say this because there is plenty of proof the union HAS negotiated cuts in light of the economy–did you miss the across-the-board 3% wage decrease for state workers in ’09 and planned in’10? Joe M-your response is ridiculous. Following the fall of Communism in Poland, Walesa was elected President and Solidarity controlled the parliament. By your definition, the Polish unions were operating in collusion, and JPII was wildly off base for continuing to support Walesa and the unions in Poland.

          • Omar Gutierrez

            Actually Braden, I don’t assume that unions would never negotiate cuts. However, a strong argument can be made that their cuts are minimal, that they are “cuts” from proposed increases in wages that trend well above the private sector, and that the damage that unions do to the common good go well beyond negotiating cuts but include the elephantine truth that unions protect wholly incompetent workers from being fired…witness the rubber rooms of New York. I never connected harm to the common good to economic hard times. I believe that would be too ephemeral a reason to justify curtailing a right. Rather, it is the playing of politics, the corruption, the protection of incompetence and the “us vs. them” mentality of union leadership that harms the common good. That employers are corrupt does not justify unions acting the same.

          • Braden

            You have zero facts to back up your argument; you argue in generalities. If an argument can be made that their cuts are minimal, what specific cuts are too minimal? Do you have ANY specific examples of union action in Wisconsin that fits your argument?

          • Joe M

            Braden. Lets examine the rationality of your “where are the refused cuts” argument: If Wisconsin Unions have never turned down a cut, what was Scott Walker’s motivation for passing his reforms?

          • Braden

            So your logic is: Scott Walker restricted union rights, therefore, unions must have refused cuts in the past. That’s your proof? Yet, again, you provide ZERO EXAMPLES. Seriously–if your point is so darn obvious, prove it. I can provide plenty of examples of state employees accepting cuts. 2009: 3% pay cuts and $100 million benefits reduction. 2010: proposed 3% pay cut, cancelled employee advancement 2% raises, further benefit cuts. So, for like the 17th time, back up your argument with facts.

          • Joe M

            Braden. You’re comparing the 1970 Polish Protests to the Wisconsin Public Employee Unions and I’m the one with a ridiculous response? Walesa’s leadership in Poland was a response to government raising the prices of food and subsequently using military violence to suppress dissent. In contrast, the Wisconsin Public Employee Unions are upset because they don’t want to pay significantly toward their own pensions during a time when unemployment is over 8% (and much higher if you count people who have given up looking for work). Hopefully, the difference is obvious. The Polish people had an actual grievance. The Wisconsin Public Employee Union does not. — The party on the other end of the bargaining table with Public Employee Unions is ultimately not some elected official. Neither Scott Walker nor Jim Doyle have ever been the Unions employer. Their employer is the tax payers. What happened in Wisconsin is what it looks like when the Public Employee Unions lose the negotiation to their actual employer. If they ever face an actual grievance, they can count on me, consistent with my Catholic faith, to support reforms to fix it. However, in the case of Wisconsin, the grievance is going in the other direction. — Do you really think that Church teaching suggests that workers have a right to collectively bargain for anything they want but that tax payers don’t have a right to have a collective say in how much unions can charge them?

    • Steve M

      Braden has a point in that the Unions negotiated in good faith for the benfit of their membership. It is beyond difficult to negotiate for the common good and the membership. I sit in negotiations now representing a company not a state. The company and the union are represented but not the common good. Both parties are supposed to acknowledge this but easier said than done. Equally Gov. Walker was handed a mess created by years of previous contract negotiations that now the state cannot afford without harming the common good as perceived by the majority of the population of Wisconsin. Hugely unfair situation for both the govenor and the unions but none the less it must be addressed. My understanding was the unions did offer concessions but the elected government of the state believed these to be insufficient to fix the financial situation. Now the parties are stuck and there is not a win-win answer. The general population of Wisconsin (or the next state in line) including businesses can belly up and pay the higher taxes or the unions can be forced to accept more concessions. It is left to the “State” in this case to make a decision for the common good. Unfortunately this decision is not made outside of the process and Omar describes. There is no neutral third party to make the decision on common good. It therefore has to be political. The final answer until the next election in Wisconsin is that the majority has determined that the common good is best served by further union concessions and the only way to achieve this is to diminish the collective bargaining rights. Very ugly but as someone else points out, the next election is the answer. The government did what they thought best for the common good and so far the majority of the people in Wisconsin agreed.

    • frmike

      I think this is an actual example.


      PS What is it on this site with the dislikes? I expect we differ in our opinions but I’d never tag you to get your comment hidden. Oh, well. Pax.



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