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Thoughts on recent attacks on collective bargaining

Thoughts on recent attacks on collective bargaining February 24, 2011

The rights of workers are underpinned by collective bargaining. This is an essential first principle. According to Catholic social teaching, these rights include: (i) a just wage, (ii) rest, (iii) a working environment not harmful to either physical health or moral integrity, (iv) respect for conscience and personal dignity, (v) subsidies for unemployed workers and their families; (vi) a pension and insurance for old age, sickness, and work-related accidents; (vii) social security connected with maternity. It’s not just wages – benefits are equally important. Workers therefore must have the overarching right to assemble and form unions, and to strike if necessary.

To secure these rights, the collective representation of workers by unions is essential: “The Magisterium recognizes the fundamental role played by labour unions, whose existence is connected with the right to form associations or unions to defend the vital interests of workers employed in the various professions“. Workers need unions to “protect their just rights vis-à-vis the entrepreneurs and the owners of the means of production”. Unions are “a positive influence for social order and solidarity, and are therefore an indispensable element of social life“. Some claim that unions are the legacy of a different era, and that workers today no longer need such protections. But Pope Benedict has a different view, noting that — in light of modern circumstances – that workers rights must be “honored today even more than in the past”.

This bears directly on the situation in Wisconsin. This goes way beyond a mere debate over burden sharing in times of pain. It is licit to call for such burden sharing. As Bishops Listecki says, “It does not follow from this that every claim made by workers or their representatives is valid”. And indeed, the unions have declared themselves open to compromise and sacrifice. This is negotiable, and must be negotiable. What is non-negotiable is the attack on the right to bargain collectively itself. This is what Walker is doing, and what many Republicans seek to emulate. This is now elevated from a prudential question to a key moral principle. As the USCCB noted recently: “these are not just political conflicts or economic choices; they are moral choices with enormous human dimensions. The debates over worker representation and collective bargaining are not simply matters of ideology or power, but involve principles of justice, participation and how workers can have a voice in the workplace and economy”.

The issue of course relates to public sector workers. Nowhere does Catholic social teaching suggest that public sector workers are somehow different, and are somehow exempt from these universal principles. All workers have rights, including those in the public sector. Some have raised the argument that public sector workers are paid by taxpayers, rendering collective bargaining inappropriate. This makes no sense. No union victory is without consequence. If a private sector union bargains for higher wages and/or benefits, the result might well be higher prices for consumers. If a public sector union does the same, the result might be higher taxes. The rights of workers cannot be sacrified because they impose a financial inconvenience on others. Some might say that governments are easier to manipulate than corporations. I don’t believe this. In the current climate, no politician wants to be seen as raising taxes. Others have said that Catholic social teaching says nothing explicit about the rights of public sector unions. This is the silliest argument of all. Don’t public sector workers possess the same innate human dignity as all workers, and deserve the same rights? I should point out that nothing explicit is written about the rights of young workers, old workers, female workers, foreign workers etc etc. And neither Bishop Listecki nor the USCCB make this distinction in commenting on Wisconsin.

I have another response to those who argue that public sector unions are somehow a class onto themselves. If collective bargaining is principally a private sector right, why are they not loudly calling for greater unionization of the private sector? As we all know, the right-wing has been attacking and chipping away at labor rights for decades now, thanks to the legacy of the Reagan era. As a result, unionization rates are at an all time low. Less than 12 percent of workers are union members, and half of these are inthe public sector. In a sense, the public sector represents the last bastion of labor rights, which is why the attack is so vigorous. Republicans have been attacking organized labor for years, and are now trying to drive a rift between public and private sector workers. But surely the answer is not to race to the bottom in compensation and benefits, but to fight for better benefits in the private sector? If we follow this Republican agenda, there will soon be no unions at all, and all worker protections will vanish. To paraphrase Martin Niemoeller: “they came for the public sector unionists, and I didn’t speak up because I wasn’t a public sector unionist”.

Many claim that the public sector are overpaid. Taking everything into account, there is little evidence of this – in general or in Wisconsin. And even the much-maligned public teachers make less than their counterparts in other countries.  But in a real sense, this debate is a diversion. If we know that a janitor makes $23,700 for government or $19,800 in the private sector, what does that tell us? That we should reduce the janitors pay and deny him the right to decent compensation and benefits? Or fight for union representation for the private sector janitor?

Inequality in the United States is at epic proportions, the highest level since before the Great Depression. The rise in inequality – especially the inequality brought about by a quarter century stagnation of median real wages – tracks the decline in unions. This inequality is one of the greatest economic problems that nobody is talking about. This is because workers have inadequate political power. The Wisconsin governor pays more attention to the views of out-of-state oil-and-gas billionaires than to his own workers. In this environment, it is more essential than ever to fight for collective bargaining, and for the rights of workers.

As the USCCB puts it, we must “allocate burdens and share sacrifice in ways that reflect principles of social justice, economic fairness and wise stewardship”. That is not happening right now. The financial crisis, brought on by financial sector greed, led to 8 million lost jobs and an increase in public debt by almost 40 percentage points. Meanwhile, the financial sector is back to business-as-usual, with untainted political power. While this is going on, taxes are still being lowered on the rich (in Washington, in Wisconsin) while the poor and the workers are being asked to pay. This is wrong, and we must take a stand. And that stand must begin in Wisconsin.


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