By Frank Wessling
Closer to home, there are threats of moving in the opposite direction. As state governors and legislators look at their options for coping with large budget imbalances, some people want to cripple public employee unions. Our neighbor Wisconsin has a new governor who apparently intends to be the poster boy for this effort. He was rightly called out for that last week by the state’s Catholic bishops.
Governor Scott Walker presented to the Wisconsin Legislature a budget bill that would decimate collective bargaining rights for public employees other than law enforcement and fire-fighting. He says the cost of union representation for workers is unaffordable.
Teachers and other government workers mounted large protests against Walker’s move last week, and Archbishop Jerome Listecki of Milwaukee, speaking for all of the Wisconsin bishops, warned that the “legitimate rights of workers” had to be respected.
Quoting from the 2009 encyclical of Pope Benedict, Caritas in Veritate, he said it is “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.’”
Catholic teaching on justice has insisted for over a century now that workers must have the right to organize and bargain for their own good as a balance to the power of owners and capital. This is not only required for economic equity and human dignity, but it becomes a factor in maintaining family life and stability in a modern economy. Governments, as employers, are not exempt.
This doesn’t mean that “every claim made by workers or their representatives is valid,” as Pope Benedict noted in his encyclical. “Every union, like every other economic actor, is called to work for the common good, to make sacrifices when required, and to adjust to new economic realities.”
Government employees must be ready to adjust to current realities just like everyone else. But their bosses must not speak and act as if they have arbitrary power to decide how that will be done. Labor unions represent a hard-won step upward in human dignity. They deserve more respect by our elected representatives.