Catholics and Wisconsin Labor Union Dispute
The history of the labor union movement in America is closely intertwined with Catholic social teaching. Thus, when Gov. Scott Walker asked the Wisconsin legislature to eliminate collective bargaining from state contracts with labor unions, some Catholic groups immediately accused Gov. Walker of breaching a fundamental Catholic principle.
However, this charge is not supported by the statement from Archbishop Jerome E. Listecki of Milwaukee or the one from Bishop Stephen Blaire of Stockton, CA on behalf of the USCCB. Neither bishop addressed the issue of collective bargaining – both statements reaffirmed in broad terms “the rights and duties of working, including the right to form and belong to labor unions and other associations.”
Archbishop Listecki made it clear he is not taking sides on the debate over collective bargaining. The Church’s support of the worker’s right to form unions does not mean that “every claim made by workers or their representatives is valid.”
Indeed, there is nothing on the table in the Wisconsin legislature that would nullify or even weaken workers’ rights. Rather, what is being debated in Wisconsin, Ohio, and Indiana is the need for a readjustment of union demands in the face of budgetary realities that threaten to bankrupt those states.
The simple fact is this: Over the years unions have used their collective bargaining power, coupled with the power of union donations to friendly legislators, to guarantee their workers’ salaries and pensions far above the norm of average citizens. However, it took a sharp and sustained downturn in the economy to reveal how the long-term financial commitments to union workers are not sustainable.
Gov. Walker is not Catholic, but the brothers – Scott and Jeff Fitzgerald — who lead the two houses of the Wisconsin state legislature are. The Fitzgeralds have, and will, come under fire for not taking a “Catholic” position in upholding the right of unions to bargain collectively with the states. They realize, however, the common good of Wisconsin citizens will not be served by allowing union power to drive the state further toward either bankruptcy or the elimination of basic goods and services so that union employees can continue to have taxpayers pay $25,000 or more into their pensions annually.
The bill before the Wisconsin legislature would require public workers to pay half the cost of their pensions, at least 12.6 percent of their health care coverage, meaning state employees’ share of pension and health care costs would go up by 8 percent. If this bill fails to pass, Gov. Walker has said he will be forced to lay off 6,000 state workers.
The common sense of the matter is this: In bad economic times everyone must accept making less and paying more of their share of health and pension benefits. This is certainly true in private industry, and there is no reason why the public labor force should be exempt.
There’s nothing in Catholic social teaching that exonerates members of a labor union from being affected by the downturn in the economy and the necessary budgetary adjustments being pursued by the states.
By Deal Hudson, President of Catholic Advocate