US Catholic Faith in Real Life

We're sticking to the union

By Kevin Clarke | Print this pagePrint | Email this pageShare
Article Justice
Don’t paint public workers as a public enemies; they’re just working for the common good.

A few days after Milwaukee Archbishop Jerome E. Listecki issued a statement acknowledging Wisconsin’s mounting fiscal worries but deploring the use of that cash crunch as an excuse to bust the state’s public sector unions, Madison Bishop Robert Morlino issued a clarification. “Neutral,” he asserted, is the Wisconsin church’s official position on the acrimonious labor dispute between Gov. Scott Walker and virtually all of the state’s union employees. But Morlino’s clarification was itself misleading.

Certainly the church hesitates to pick sides in conflicts top-heavy with political interests, such as the debate that resulted in the storming of the Madison statehouse. But it is simply wrong to say that the church is neutral regarding the rights of workers, especially the right of collective bargaining.

The church’s first social encyclical, Pope Leo XIII’s 1891 Rerum Novarum, specifically endorses the right of workers to organize and negotiate for improved wages and working conditions. It also had a lot to say about the role of capital and the state in securing and promoting a just society and workplace.

When the public sector remnant of unionized labor in the United States appears heading for a final showdown over the whole notion of unionism, its defense of workers is worth remembering as part of our Catholic heritage. But the church’s advice and admonishment of the other key players in civic life is likewise worth hearing again, too.

We live in a period of diminished social and educational opportunity, of moral and fiscal deficits wrought by war-making and erroneous constructs of so-called shared sacrifice that overburdens the politically weak and the poor and seeks out tax breaks for the already wealthy and powerful. Walker talks a good game about fiscal probity and protecting the interests of future generations, but when the mikes were off, prompted by a prank phone call, he spoke about his state employees as if they were political enemies that deserved no quarter.

What we are observing in Wisconsin and elsewhere is indeed a power struggle between labor and their employers, in this case government, but it is more than that. This civil conflict is a product of a fundamental failure to define a shared understanding of another concept that comes to us out of Catholic social teaching and good old Rerum Novarum: the common good.

In a period of profound economic uncertainty, the federal government persists in claiming vast tax resources while passing social service burdens on to the states. We are a nation fighting for the scraps left behind after defense and security spending sinfully consumes, with our tacit consent, the lion’s share of our national treasure. We are struggling, not because the few remaining union workers have superior pension packages, but because, instead of facing up to the realities of this economic crisis, we seek innovations in tax reduction and blame-passing.

We create bogeymen of union thugs and welfare queens, and we cravenly hand off our debt to the future. We have given up building the common good, and instead are constructing a list of new enemies.

Work is one way we move beyond the intimate society of our family and connect to a larger community, extending ourselves to a greater good. It’s a first step toward accepting and celebrating the interconnection of all people.

Even this terrible civic conflict brewing over public sector workers in Wisconsin and across the country, in defining their future and ours, offers an opportunity to appreciate that connection. We can use that opportunity to take a step back from anger and negotiate a practical vision of the common good.

To do that political posturing must cease. But that will not be enough, of course. More difficult will be to sit down at a communal table, break bread and hard heads, and talk over the hard matters, always remembering that across the divide sits not the “enemy,” not a representative of a different political party or ideology, but brothers and sisters to us.­

This article appeared in the May 2011 issue of U.S. Catholic (Vol. 76, No. 5, page 39).