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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  • SB

    s. Nowhere does Catholic social teaching suggest that public sector workers are somehow different, and are somehow exempt from these universal principles.

    Nowhere does Catholic social teaching betray any realization that public sector unions are quite differently situated from private sector unions. You have to use your own reason to figure that out for yourself: why do the principles counseling in favor of private sector unions apply to public sector unions, which 1) already possess immense political power by being a concentrated interest group, 2) elect the very people with whom they “bargain,” and 3) are not in any sense whatsoever bargaining over the profits arising from their labor? You do not have any answer to this.

    The line about human dignity is irrational. If one proposes giving collective bargaining power to CEOs, it’s not a slur on their human dignity to respond that they already have quite enough power and that they aren’t even remotely in the same situation as the people who need union representation.

    • Why do you persist with this? I have posted repeatedly links to both Listecki’s press release and to our social doctrine at the Vatican.

      It is quite clear there are no separate provisions made on either link I sent you. Again The Vatican does not directly mention Grand Theft Auto, but that does not mean you are free to run out and steal a car.

      If you would like to draft your own doctrine you can always start your own Church. That is totally your choice. Rewriting Catholic doctrine requires a specific type of wardrobe and title.

      • SB

        Stop trying to play inapplicable trump cards and end all discussion before it even starts.

        • I think Morning Minion and Kurt adequately just applied the trump card to you below.

          What is at question here is not what the Church policy is on Unions, but why your own personal ideology trumps Church policy.

          My Pope is Pope Benedict not Pope SB.

          • SB

            No, they haven’t even tried to answer my points. Just believe whatever you want about public sector unions, but spare the pretense that it’s a “Catholic’ position.

          • After you latest response I just have to ask SB, are you by any chance a direct linear descendant of Sisyphus?

        • I will gladly “spare the pretense that it’s a Catholic position” when you acknowledge that you will only accept evidence that supports your position and will continue to casually dismiss anything that does not.

      • SB

        Note that the Compendium defines unions at the very outset as organizations that “protect their just rights vis-à-vis the entrepreneurs and the owners of the means of production.”

        One can see instantly that this is not talking about government unions, which do no such thing. So stop with the unthinking citations.

        To take a specific example, does anyone really think that the California prison guard union does anything about the owners of the means of production by lobbying in favor of building more prisons and sending more people to jail unfairly? That’s the noble cause that popes have lauded?

        • Funny how the local bishop and the USCCB missed that distinction, isn’t it?

          • Kurt

            As well as the Church’s statement about the just rights of workers for private non-profits.

          • SB

            Yes, that’s what I’m saying: their reasoning is ignorant and sloppy if it treats public sector unions the same as more legitimate private sector unions.

    • This makes no sense. As I pointed out in the post, the point of a union is to secure the rights of workers, which are listed. Even deeper than that, unions are a compelling part of the social order, and a vital subsidiary mediating institution. It’s funny how so-called “conservatives” simultaneously decry “big government” and fight the main subsidiary group that stands between the person and the power of the state.

      Yes, public sector unions bargain for compensation and benefits, which comes from the fruit of their labor no less than a private sector worker. Without this representation, I believe public sector workers would be especially vulnerable, without a political voice, prone to merciless attacks from the self-important safeguards of the public purse (whose real concern is typically rewarding the rich, those with a voice).

      It’s shocking that you would crictize unions, public sector or otherwise, for having too much power. In what world are you living? What do you think has been going on over the past 30 years. Just look at these charts:

      • SB

        You think that teachers, who already vote in school board elections at rates several times higher than everyone else, would be “especially vulnerable, without a political voice” unless they have collective bargaining too? Hmmm.

        • Kurt

          Whatever opportunities workers may have to have a voice in elections, subsidiarity teaches us that the proper place to resolve workplace issues is the workplace.

          • SB

            Subsidiarity absolutely does NOT require that school boards be mandated by state law to engage in collective bargaining with teacher unions.

  • SB
  • SB

    Since we’re talking about teachers’ unions here, check out this empirical study of voting power in school board elections:

    In school-board elections, the incentives of the teacher unions are strong and clear. If they can wield clout at the polls, they can determine who sits on local school boards—and in so doing, they can literally choose the very “management” they will be bargaining with. (Private sector unions, which square off against independent management teams, can only dream of such a thing.)

    . . .

    Do teachers vote at high rates compared with average citizens? The answer is clearly yes, as Figures 1a and 1b illustrate. Indeed, if we compute the turnout gap between teachers and average citizens in each district, the median gap over all districts and elections (both school-board and bond) was 36.5 percent, which is a huge number given the very low turnout overall. In 1997, for instance, only 7 percent of registered voters in the Charter Oak school district voted in their school-board election, but 46 percent of the teachers who live there did. In Claremont, 18 percent of registered voters went to the polls, but 57 percent of the teachers who live there did. Similar figures can be recited for every district, and the conclusion is the same whether we look at board elections in 1997, board elections in 1999, or bond elections. Teachers who live in their districts were from two to seven times more likely to vote than other citizens were.

    • The problems with the US education system are so deep and malignant to get into here. There are so many problems, and current unions are part of the problem. But the existence of unions per se is not the issue. The best education systems in the world protect teachers with unions. So don’t dodge the issue.

      And also, stop trying to come up with examples of unions doing bad things. As the post makes clear, one does not have to support every position held by every union, but one does have to support the right of the union to speak for workers. And besides, for every example of nefarious union activity you provide, I’m pretty sure one could quite easily find 100 examples of nefarious corporate activity (such as the corrupt and coxy relationship between politicians, judges, and profit-making prisons).

      • SB

        The point is that teachers are perfectly able to represent their interests through the political process of electing their employers, and do not need collective bargaining too.

        • Kurt

          Not under subsidiarity.

      • SB

        But this is NOT “nefarious union activity,” on par with corporations polluting or falsifying financial records. This is a public sector union doing EXACTLY what it was intended and designed to do: demanding more legislation and benefits for its workers. This is something you are required to applaud, if you mean what you say about unions.

  • SB

    One more, from a National Affairs article:

    For a case study in how public-sector unions manipulate both supply and demand, consider the example of the California Correctional Peace Officers Association. Throughout the 1980s and ’90s, the CCPOA lobbied the state government to increase California’s prison facilities — since more prisons would obviously mean more jobs for corrections officers. And between 1980 and 2000, the Golden State constructed 22 new prisons for adults (before 1980, California had only 12 such facilities). The CCPOA also pushed for the 1994 “three strikes” sentencing law, which imposed stiff penalties on repeat offenders. The prison population exploded — and, as intended, the new prisoners required more guards. The CCPOA has been no less successful in increasing members’ compensation: In 2006, the average union member made $70,000 a year, and more than $100,000 with overtime. Corrections officers can also retire with 90% of their salaries as early as age 50. Today, an amazing 11% of the state budget — more than what is spent on higher education — goes to the penal system. Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger now proposes privatizing portions of the prison system to escape the unions’ grip — though his proposal has so far met with predictable (union supported) political opposition.

    What say you, MM? Is this what the Church envisions — public unions that distort the political process so as to divert ever more money into imprisoning people?

  • Cindy

    I was under the impression that it was ‘private’ prisons that locked people up for longer. I think that SB has that all mixed up. Sorry to say, but I could site article after article on here as well proving that point. What is the point? Are you comparing an average teacher salary at $51k a year, to what has now become like and American God Given Right for corporations to have tax loopholes in this country? How can we as a country go after the working class all the while ignoring that our country is devolving into literally “The Corportate States of America”? How can we ignore that aspect? Also, how can we ignore that in the state of WI the governor wants to sell utilities and the Koch Bros would benefit from that? Considering that it’s been reported that the Koch’s will be shopping for new energies, wouldnt that be taken into consideration?

  • Kurt

    My conservative friends seem particularly obsessed by the idea of workers having an organized voice in the political and legislative process. I think we should have a voice, but let me as an agent of a labor union suggest the rough allocation of tasks we perform:

    50% – Grievances (i.e. disputes of fact over agreed upon work rules: was an employee the subject of sexual harassment? Was an employee AWOL? Was an employee discriminated against in a promotion because of race? Did an employee damage employer property?)

    20% Contract negotiations over working conditions (for what relatives will berevement leave be allowed? Will there be a telework program and under what conditions? What are the workplace safety standards management will observe? May an employee have outside employment? What are the training opportunities for employees? Do employees have the right to a certain amount of notice before a lay-off?)

    15% contract negotiations over wages and benefits.

    10%- fraternity and professional development — union sponsored picnics, social activities, celebrations and commemoration of life events, deceased members or their spouses, softball and bowling leagues, retirement planning seminars, career advancement programs, etc.

    5% voter and legislative education.

  • Cindy

    A public employee, a member of the Tea Party, and a CEO sit at a table with a dozen cookies on a plate. The CEO reaches across, takes 11 of the cookies, looks at the tea partier and says, “Watch out for that Union Guy: He wants a piece of your cookie.”