Labor pains: What Wisconsin tells us about Catholics and unions

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Article Social Justice
Catholics have a long history of support for unions, but the recent protests in Wisconsin show how strained the relationship has become.

Veteran Catholic lawmaker Timothy Cullen was the last Wisconsin Democratic state senator to leave Madison on a chilly winter morning this past February. The other 13 had already fled the capital and across the Illinois state line, immune from any attempt to force them back to vote on the usually mundane budgetary fix to adjust the state budget.

This year the fix was anything but mundane. Newly inaugurated Gov. Scott Walker’s plan included a provision that shocked even Republican leaders. It would strip most public employees of the right to collective bargaining regarding their working conditions and benefits. This came on the heels of tax cuts that Walker had pushed through the new Republican majorities in both legislative houses—including tax cuts on capital gains, for corporations, and for the wealthy. It was the attack on collective bargaining (where workers agree to be represented by a union for negotiations over work conditions, wages, and benefits), however, that sparked weeks of protests and apparently divided even Wisconsin’s Catholic bishops between support for the unions and the governor.

Cullen says the governor’s collective bargaining bill divided Wisconsin as he’s never seen the state divided before. That division extends to the state’s more than 1.6 million Catholics—29 percent of the population.

Cullen made it to Illinois, denying the 19 Senate Republicans a 20th member necessary for the quorum needed to vote on budgetary bills. He didn’t stay there, though, even after the Republicans voted to order the forcible detention of their Democratic counterparts. He returned home every weekend, attending Sunday Mass at the picturesque, steepled St. Patrick Church in Janesville, the parish he grew up in and where his uncle was ordained a priest 70 years ago.

Walker became nationally known as network news carried stories week after week on the protests in Madison and on the fugitive senators. Suddenly Americans needed to learn—or relearn—just what collective bargaining was all about.

Catholics had an additional task: To square how they felt about the Wisconsin brouhaha with Catholic social teaching. “It’s not always easy to sort out social teachings from political stands,” warns Bishop Stephen Blaire of Stockton, California. “Catholic social teaching should inform a person’s politics, not the other way around.”

Considering the church’s tremendous potential to frame and clarify the debate, what happened in Wisconsin this year suggests this might be a good time for American Catholics to renew their acquaintance with the church’s social encyclicals and to remember Catholics’ history as the backbone of the U.S. labor movement. This is, after all, the 120th anniversary of Pope Leo XIII’s 1891 encyclical Rerum Novarum, the church’s founding document on social justice teaching and its support for working people and unions.

Public vs. private divide

Just two days after the Madison protests began, Milwaukee Archbishop Jerome Listecki and the Wisconsin Catholic Conference issued a statement. Difficult economic times do “not nullify the moral obligation each of us has to respect the legitimate rights of workers,” Listecki wrote. He quoted Pope Benedict XVI’s 2009 encyclical Caritas in Veritate: “Governments, for reasons of economic utility, often limit the freedom or the negotiating capacity of labor unions. Hence traditional networks of solidarity have more and more obstacles to overcome. The repeated calls issued within the church’s social doctrine, beginning with Rerum Novarum, for the promotion of workers’ associations that can defend their rights must therefore be honored today even more than in the past.”

The question in Wisconsin was whether public employees should have the same right to collective bargaining as employees at private companies. The 1935 U.S. National Labor Relations Act officially recognized the right to collective bargaining for private-sector workers. Critics argue that public employees inherently have more leverage than employees of private businesses. Public employees can elect their own bosses. What’s more, public-sector workers won’t moderate their demands for fear that their employer—the government—will go bankrupt in the same way that private-sector employees must do.

“One has to make a distinction between unions as they were conceived in social teaching and unions that exist on the basis of taxpayer funding,” says Patrick Carey, professor of theology at Milwaukee’s Marquette University.

Michael Novak, Catholic conservative and bestselling author, agrees. “There should be restrictions,” he says. “Public-sector unions can hold the citizenry hostage; weak politicians too easily go along with their demands. In Wisconsin, their propaganda was that they were like other unions. But public-sector unions both work for the public and demand pay from the public. They have no competitors, so it’s like extortion.”

Wisconsin’s public employees and their supporters, however, argued that wasn’t so. The unions had already agreed to Walker’s demands that they pay 5.8 percent of their salary toward their pensions and 12.6 percent of their health care premiums—fixing the budgetary shortfall without the loss of collective bargaining.

“What’s happening in Wisconsin isn’t about health care or other benefits because the unions already agreed to the cuts,” says John Sweeney, former president of the AFL-CIO.

Battling bishops?

Public employees thought their unions were considering the common good, as Catholic teaching insists upon, and yet the governor still wanted to curtail their ability to negotiate future contracts through collective bargaining.

“I personally don’t see how workers can have a voice without collective bargaining,” says Bishop Blaire. “But that said, unions and management should be looking for new ways to better work together. The church stands for principles: the right to organize, the right to have a voice. Catholic social teaching lays out principles of social justice. It’s quite possible that people, in applying those principles, come to different conclusions.”

In his statement Listecki cautioned that not every claim made by every worker or every union was just, but that it was equally mistaken to view unions as impediments to economic growth. The archbishop urged the lawmakers to carefully consider the implications of the governor’s proposal and its impact on the common good.

On February 23 Blaire, chairman of the Committee on Domestic Justice and Human Development for the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, issued a statement expressing support for Listecki’s position.

The following day, Bishop Robert Morlino of Madison issued a clarifying letter. Listecki and the Wisconsin Catholic Conference, Morlino wrote, had taken a neutral position, neither supporting the governor nor supporting the unions. He quoted Pope John Paul II’s Laborem Exercens: “Just efforts to secure the rights of workers who are united by the same profession should always take into account the limitations imposed by the general economic situation of the country.”

Right-wing bloggers praised Morlino for reining in the Wisconsin Catholic Conference’s support for the unions. The media cited his comments as evidence of divisions within the hierarchy.

“People may say the bishops cherry-picked from the encyclicals,” says John Huebscher, executive director of the Wisconsin Catholic Conference. “The answer is to urge people to go read the encyclicals for themselves.”

Hand in hand

The battles, of course, have already been fought. Polish workers and the Knights of Labor organized in Milwaukee’s St. Stanislaus Catholic Church in 1886 to demand an 8-hour workday. That Wisconsin strike ended with the National Guard firing on marchers, killing seven.

The state’s working class was heavily Catholic throughout the 20th century, the heyday of American organized labor. Unions drew inspiration from church teachings and often educated their local leadership in Catholic “labor schools” organized by priests and Catholic colleges. Today only one remains, the Labor Guild in Boston.

In the mid-1950s, about 35 percent of Americans belonged to unions; in 2010 it was just 11.9 percent. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, U.S. unions lost more than 600,000 members just between 2009 and 2010. The past three decades of diminishing union rolls have been accompanied by the rise of financial fortunes on Wall Street and economic losses among the American middle class.

Sweeney has said that some people think the unions—and the church—dropped their guard and became complacent at the same time that employers “declared war on workers and our unions in the early 1980s.”

Critics complain that unions are corrupt. They point to times when unions have been inflexible, when they have protected shirkers, when they have pitted workers against management, and when they have looked out for their members’ short-term interests too well, arguably at the expense of the common good.

Novak agrees with a key criticism from the right, that it’s wrong for unions to use a member’s dues to contribute to politicians or political organizations with which that member doesn’t necessarily agree. Still he wouldn’t want to see their demise. “On balance, unions are important and valuable, but they’re subject to abuse,” he says. “Catholic social teaching has to pay more attention to the human frailties, the moral hazards and ambiguities into which union actions can fall. Unions are not angelic. Sometimes they are counter to the public good.”

Still, Novak believes organized labor serves a vital function in our system of democratic capitalism. “The most important thing unions do is give an important constituency a voice, an ability to protect themselves from abuses, and a way to state their grievances,” he says.

“Collective bargaining is a search for solidarity,” says Joseph McCartin, associate professor of history at Georgetown University. “Neither side should be able to dictate terms to the other. That undermines the dignity of the human person. This is a consistent theme in Catholic teaching.”

Although the influx of largely Catholic immigrants from Latin America has replenished America’s working-class Catholics, they are adrift today in an era of reduced influence for the unions and reduced awareness of church support for labor. Unlike in times when immigrant workers could use the strength of their numbers to fight for their rights and bargain successfully for livable wages, health insurance, and pensions, today those workers are likely to be isolated.

Father Clete Kiley, director of immigration issues at Unite Here, a union whose members primarily work in hotels, says the social teachings still resonate. “The very things Rerum Novarum addresses, those are the things I hear about from immigrant workers today. Hotel workers tell me they were expected to clean 16 rooms a day, and then it became 18, and then 24, and now it’s 28 rooms a day. So many are Catholic, and so many are happy to see a priest among them; they feel the cavalry has arrived. They want to know they’re standing on a moral high ground. That’s where they’ll draw their courage from.”

Movin’ on up

John Sweeney’s childhood was one in which family, church, and union were the pillars of his family’s values. Sweeney remembers the picket lines when his father’s union went on strike for a 40-hour workweek. “I knew what these issues meant to him, but also what it meant to our family,” says Sweeney. “When he got a paid vacation, it affected him, but it also affected us. It was meaningful for our family life.”

Still, as Catholics became stockbrokers, bankers, or owners of small businesses, they tend not to support unions.

“As Catholics have become more affluent, the church’s teachings sometimes bump up against a Catholic’s economic self-interest,” says Huebscher of the Wisconsin Catholic Conference. “So the church has a greater challenge in teaching.”

Huebscher thinks the church is teaching the social encyclicals, but the evidence is sketchy. “How many laypeople have ever been taught anything about the Catholic encyclicals?” asks Marquette’s Carey. “It doesn’t surprise me that Catholic laypeople don’t necessarily support unions. The culture can teach more easily by osmosis than the church can.”

“When I talk with priests around the country, they say the church’s social teaching is the subject they feel least comfortable addressing,” says Father Bryan Massingale, associate professor of theology at Marquette. “They tell me their two weakest courses in seminary were homiletics and social justice.”

Chicago labor lawyer and author Thomas Geoghegan believes the cold calculus of politics also plays a role in the church’s relative silence. “The church has changed,” he believes. “It’s heavily dependent on the rich, who open their wallets only for the church’s teaching on abortion.”

In Wisconsin, politics have exacerbated the discomfort just when teaching might have been most apt. “Everybody I talk to has a very firm opinion on this matter, and their mind is made up,” says Cullen, the Democratic state senator. “That’s had a chilling effect on Catholic priests teaching the Catholic view of labor unions. They couldn’t talk about it without coming across as being against the governor.”

Catholic Sen. Scott Fitzgerald, the Republican majority leader in the Wisconsin Senate who helped shepherd through the governor’s bill, thinks there’s a gray area regarding Catholic social teaching on unions. “Is the church referring to human rights?” he asks. “If they are, I don’t think you’d find anyone ever questioning that we need to be full protectors for human rights. This latest debate wasn’t about that. It was about collective bargaining.”

“Unions are made up of people, including people whose standards or judgment aren’t what they should be,” says Leon Burzynski, a former union organizer who is now president of the Wisconsin Alliance of Retired Americans. Still, he believes unions are key to both social justice and maintaining a middle class.

The challenges unions face in Wisconsin is that economically comfortable suburban Catholics, many of them grandchildren and great-grandchildren of immigrants, often forget how unions helped their own families, says Burzynski. “They see themselves as a pull-yourself-up-by-the-bootstraps kind of people.”

Family ties

Catholics nationally are split almost exactly evenly regarding unions. The Pew Research Center for the People and the Press asked people about how they viewed unions in the first week in February, before the Wisconsin protests. Researchers found 48 percent of Catholics—versus 42 percent of Protestants—view unions favorably. Support for unions seems associated with a union member in the household.

“My Catholic friends don’t tend to join in on attacks on unions,” Novak says. “We remember our grandfathers, and they’d turn in their graves if we joined in.”

“Wherever workers are in unions, it has a major impact on their thinking,” says McCartin. “You see that in how people vote, levels of voter participation, their voting Democratic—especially white men.”

Cullen remembers the days when organized labor was overwhelmingly Catholic. “Since then, the number of Catholics in organized labor has dramatically diminished and so did church activism for organized labor,” he says. “There are fewer people in Catholic families who are in the unions. That’s diminished the fervor . . . and we have a very conservative hierarchy.”

Even the Catholic left knows very little about Catholic social teachings, according to labor lawyer Geoghegan. “Or the role of the American church in tipping the Vatican into supporting unions,” he says (see sidebar, page 15). “And the odd thing is—the church wittingly or not has the perfect economic model for the woes of this country today.”

Geoghegan describes how Catholic social teachings have worked in Germany, a creditor nation with 60 percent of its work force unionized, in his latest book, Were You Born on the Wrong Continent? (New Press). In the United States, in contrast, Catholic social teaching seems to have had little effect on an economy that has spun out of control in favoring Wall Street over Main Street, let alone middle-class union members.

“There’s such a focus on wealth,” says Sweeney.

State of affairs

On March 9 the Wisconsin Senate Republicans removed the collective bargaining bill’s budgetary elements, allowing them to vote on it without a quorum. They passed it unanimously.

Wisconsin isn’t alone in looking to curtail public-sector union collective bargaining as a solution to fiscal shortfalls. State legislatures across the country are considering more than 750 anti-union pieces of legislation.

Tom Thibodeau, director of the masters program in Servant Leadership at Viterbo University in LaCrosse, Wisconsin, hopes that the labor movement will renew its spiritual roots and that the church will renew its solidarity with labor. “Who else,” he asks, “has the moral authority to pull people together?”

One of the ways that the American Catholic Church allied with labor in the past was through articulate and passionate labor priests. There are priests today who are working to revive that tradition, including Kiley, who gave the invocation at a building trades convention in Washington earlier this year.

In that invocation, he decried the “Wall Street gamblers who crippled our economy, took obscene bonuses, and began the great lie that those to blame are labor unions and the middle class. This is a lie and we will not be silent about it. . . . We say it is time for a new social contract for this country, and we’re going to make it happen. So bless us with courage, bless us with righteous anger. Today we are one, and in your name, we will act.”

Since then Kiley has been deluged with invitations to give prayers. He’d broken a silence, he believes. “There’s a real hunger,” he says. “People are looking for spiritual guidance, for someone to speak to our core ethics, our values, the goodness we see in our neighbor, and the hopes and dreams we have for our children.”

Kiley hopes to create a program that will mentor labor priests.

“This is a great time for priests and deacons to begin talking about social teachings,” says Burzynski. “If maybe half the priests were labor priests . . .”

Sweeney is aiming higher.

“We should implement a new and thorough education program based on Rerum Novarum, one that reaches into every seminary, every diocese, and every parish in America,” he told a May gathering in Washington. “And we should challenge every priest to be a labor priest, every bishop to be a labor bishop, every cardinal to be a labor cardinal . . . just as every pope since Leo XIII has been a labor pope.”

This article appeared in the August 2011 issue of U.S. Catholic (Vol. 76, No. 8, pages 12-17).

Image: Brian Kersey.