By Barb Arland-Fye
As a sophomore in college I worked for a brief time in a hospital’s housekeeping department to help pay bills. I felt some pressure to join the union representing housekeepers, but declined. If I hadn’t quit a short time later, would I have been forced to join at some point?
The question is moot, but not the subject of unions. For the past 26 years, I’ve been married to a loyal union member who now serves as a union officer for the Brotherhood of Locomotive Engineers. My husband Steve and I have on occasion debated the merits of unions and collective bargaining. But I also know that Steve is a hard-working locomotive engineer who loves his job.
So it is with alarm that we watch the flames of anti-union sentiment moving like an out-of-control fire across the country. Last month the Wisconsin state assembly voted to strip nearly all collective bargaining rights from public workers. Other states, including Iowa, are pursuing a similar course of action. Steve views these developments as the beginning of a systematic dismantling of unions.
“If they can’t collectively bargain, what can they do?” he asks rhetorically. “Unions are being used as a scapegoat for all the things that are wrong in this country.”
But union membership, he believes, “gives the employee a voice in how his work is going to be defined when it comes to working conditions and pay.”
That’s the crux of the problem – pay and benefits. Financially strapped governments say they need to reduce spending, but are hampered by expensive and inflexible union agreements. Supporters of legislation that would limit collective bargaining for public employees in Iowa say it would give taxpayers a seat at the bargaining table. Opponents say the bill would damage the collective bargaining process and is an effort to reduce pay and benefits of state workers in order to fund corporate tax breaks.
The Iowa Catholic Conference (ICC), the lobbying arm of the state’s bishops, has issued a statement concerning Catholic social teaching, which fundamentally recognizes and supports the rights of workers to organize. But the ICC also believes that 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.”
On April 4, Bishop Martin Amos of the Davenport Diocese and Bishop Richard Pates of the Des Moines Diocese signed a statement regarding “Labor Unions and Government Negotiations.” They thanked Father David Polich of St. Patrick Parish in Perry for presenting the statement during a labor rally at the State Capitol, which reads:
“In the midst of turmoil related to labor unions and the current economy, it is appropriate to reiterate long standing church teaching dating back to 1891 and Pope Leo XIII. The Church in its teaching on labor has steadfastly upheld that workers deserve just wages and benefits, decent working conditions and the ability to organize and engage in collective bargaining. Archbishop Jerome Listecki of Milwaukee recently stated: ‘Hard times do not nullify the moral obligation each of us has to respect the legitimate rights of workers.’ At the same time, the archbishop stated that unions need to ‘make sacrifices when required’ in adjusting to ‘new economic realities.’”
The statement signed by Bishops Amos and Pates also cites letters by Popes Benedict XVI and John Paul II that speak to the necessity of unions in protecting workers’ rights. Pope John Paul called for workers’ rights to be crafted within a “framework of the common good of the whole of society.”
The statement signed by Bishops Amos and Pates urges unions and management to “work strenuously for the common good in order that all in society might participate justly and equitably in the rich gifts of a beneficent creator.”
Steve is grateful to the Catholic Church for its social teaching on labor and workers’ rights. “My wish is for management and labor to be guided by those principles,” he said.