Collective bargaining rights extend to the public sector too

Collective bargaining rights extend to the public sector too September 8, 2011

Many on the Catholic right have argued that Church teachings on the right to form and join unions really only apply to the private sector. This is a misinterpretation without foundation. As the US bishops wrote clearly in their Labor Day message:

“There have been some efforts, as part of broader disputes over state budgets, to remove or restrict the rights of workers to collective bargaining as well as limit the role of unions in the workplace. Bishops in Wisconsin, Ohio, and elsewhere have faithfully and carefully outlined Catholic teaching on worker rights, suggesting that difficult times should not lead us to ignore the legitimate rights of workers. Without endorsing every tactic of unions or every outcome of collective bargaining, the Church affirms the rights of workers in public and private employment to choose to come together to form and join unions, to bargain collectively, and to have an effective voice in the workplace.”

Of course, the “private alone”  argument is more than a little disingenuous. In an era of declining unionization, a persistent chipping away at union powers, and the demonization of union leaders, is it really the case that right-wing American Catholics hold that the right of workers to choose to join a union is a natural right, one that the government must protect rather than undermine?

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  • brian martin

    One wonders if it applies to those employed by the Church?

  • Kurt

    For the most part, I find that conservatives who happen to be Catholic are content at just re-stating the standard secular conservative talking points when speaking of unions (with, to their credit, a good number just staying quiet on the matter). But there is a small element that, with no basis, likes to project their own views and claim the Church support them despite any shred of evidence.

    The 2011 Labor Day Statement takes on these assertions and rejects them, for which I salute the bishops.

    No organization of this word has a more intimate relationship with the Catholic Church than the labor movement.

  • SB

    The fact that one bishop made that statement in no way disproves the fact that the only Church teachings bearing any authority whatsoever have literally zero to do with the public sector situation in which the supposedly beleaguered employees actually control the managers via the electoral process, and in which bargaining becomes a collusive arrangement that is contrary to the public good.

  • Kurt


    There is no such “fact.” There is not a single authoritative Church statement that says public workers are exempt from the natural law rights God has given all other workers.

    And public workers hardly control their managers just because they have the same voting and civic participation rights as every other American.

    But I note that one never hears from the Right that corporations that have PACs and lobby should not be able to be awarded government contracts.

  • SB

    There is not a single authoritative Church statement that even remotely applies to public sector workers. As I’ve detailed before, with no refutation or even an attempt at refutation, the Church teachings on unions all have to do with the struggle of the poor worker against the powerful capitalist, not with the “struggle” of middle-class managers and teachers to extract ever more money from democratically-elected officials who could legitimately have other uses for that money (healthcare, let’s say).

    If you’re not familiar with school board elections, in which teachers unions are by far the most powerful interest group, you should read up on that subject. Yes, they have the same voting rights, but surely you have heard that concentrated interest groups can hold very disproportionate sway over electoral outcomes. There’s no reason for teachers unions to be organized against the typical school board any more than the ordinary members of the teachers union need to form their own internal union to bargain with the president of the teachers union.

  • SB

    Here’s what’s going on in Wisconsin thanks to limits on collective bargaining for teachers: districts are saving money and jobs, because they don’t have to funnel as many exorbitant benefits to union members:

    Cost savings from worker contributions to health care and retirement, taking effect today as part of the new collective bargaining laws, will swing the Kaukauna School District from a $400,000 budget deficit to an estimated $1.5 million surplus, the Post-Crescent in Appleton reports. The district tells the Post-Crescent that it plans to hire teachers and reduce class size.

  • No worker’s rights were infringed upon in Wisconsin or other states. They are just being asked to make the same accommodations as workers in the private sector. The bishops are right on the principle but wrong on the facts. Or, you may say that conservative Catholics agree with their major premise yet dispute the minor premise.

  • Kurt

    No worker’s rights were infringed upon in Wisconsin or other states. They are just being asked to make the same accommodations as workers in the private sector.

    That simply is not true, Pauli. No private sector worker had collective bargaining rights taken away. The workers were asked nothing — they were told. The Wisconsin workers were willing to discuss anything. What happened is that the Governor passed a law saying there would no longer be any discussion or negotiation.

    And SB, the Church’s teachings on unions is not that unions are only for the poor in a “struggle” against the powerful capitalist. The Church teaches that unions are the normative means of workers relating to their employers. Again, not a single authoritative church document says that public workers are exempt from the Church’s teachings of the right of workers to form unions.

  • I find some of these arguments astonishing. SB claims that because the clear and strident Church teaching on the natural right to join a union doesn’t apply to public sector workers because they don’t mention public sector workers directly? Well, they don’t mention construction workers directly either…you see where this is going. It reminds of the thugs who support torture by claiming that while the Church is against torture, it never says explicitly that you can’t torture to get information, or save lives or whatever. A feeble argument.

    And Pauli’s position seems to be: since private sector workers have seen major assaults on their natural rights to joins union and bargain collectively over the past few decades, then we must level the playing field by punishing public sector workers too. Unbelievable. Like an argument that if abortion is permitted in the first trimester, then why not permit up after that too – level the playing field after all.

  • Kurt

    I guess if a Catholic has a sincere question as to if public worker are included when the Church speaks of the right of workers to form union, the simple way to answer it is to look to those countries where unions were founded and sponored by the Church and see if they included both private sector and public sector workers. SB? Pauli? Shall we investigate this?

  • Paul DuBois

    I am a private sector worker who had my company cut many of my benefits, after working for them for 25 years under the promise of healthcare in retirement they renigged on the promise and then they defaulted on our pension resulting in between a 70% and 30% cut depending on when I retire and a complete loss of the portion of the pension I contributed to out of my paycheck.
    As a result of this and the great change it has caused in my life (even more so for my former coworkers who were forced to retire shortly before these cuts were made) I do not wish for similar cuts on the public sector or on anyone else. I wish for employers, public and private, keep the promises they made! The types of cuts many are discussing “in fairness” are a theft of benefits after the employees have already worked to recieve them. I feel what my company did should be crimminal. Just because I was stolen from does not mean I wish someone would rob my neighbor.

  • SB claims that because the clear and strident Church teaching on the natural right to join a union doesn’t apply to public sector workers because they don’t mention public sector workers directly? Well, they don’t mention construction workers directly either…you see where this is going.

    There’s no reason to mention construction workers specifically, because there aren’t vast structural differences that make any general reasoning about unions completely inapplicable to the construction industry.

    Use your head: just because someone labels something a “union” doesn’t mean that Catholics have to unthinkingly support it. If Bill Gates starts the “CEO Union” to somehow increase the bargaining power of CEOs against their operating boards, so that they can extract even better sweetheart deals for themselves, it isn’t a violation of Catholic teaching to say, “That’s not what unions are for, and you don’t need a union.”

    The same is true here, albeit to a lesser extent. Democratically elected representatives do not have an incentive to stiff the union so as to keep more profits for themselves. To the contrary, they often have every incentive to pay off public workers (whether unionized or not) so as to shore up their electoral base, and to the extent that politicians want to use the money elsewhere, this isn’t for personal gain but because the public good demands that more public dollars be used for healthcare or whatever else is at issue. In short, public sector workers shouldn’t need a union, and to the extent that the union obtains money or benefits that workers weren’t already getting even as a powerful interest group, the union is almost surely operating in contradiction to the public good.

  • Paul DuBois

    So the point is if we used slaves as public workers a greater public good would be served? The public unions have had the very same problems getting what their employers promised as have private workers. In school districts without teachers unions, teachers are lower paid, have larger classes and in general are treated poorer. The claim above that a the Kaukauna School District will see a 1.9 million dollar swing in their budget by denying barganing rights to teachers is not magic! The are redusing the pay and benefits of actual people. People who are not living in mansions and eating caviar all summer. People who are trying to get by just like everyone else.
    If you do not think this is purely a political move to punish those who did not support the currently elected majority, explain why the two unions that supported the Republicans in Wisconsin were specifically excluded. Teacher unions support Democrats, because Democrats in general support ideas that help education. To associate the vindictive actions in Wisconsin with the Catholic Church is wrong and your arguements that because public unions represent a small portion of the voting public they some how have control over their employers fall flat. Let’s stop aqrgueing from the point of talking points and start thinking how real people are suffering so conservative politicians can win a few points.

  • Kurt


    You present accurately the the views of secular conservativism but I think you miss the mark as far as the Church’s teaching. First of all the Church views fraternity and solidarity among members of various crafts, trades and professions as a virtue, not as foremostly an evil action. So yes, the Church promotes associations among mangers and employers as well as workers. A Calvinist might presume that when people come together in fraternity, evil follows, but the Catholic Church is on the side than man is by his good nature a social being. To suggest that there is only to be fraternity when there are clear, grave abuses is not the Church’s teachings. The Church teaches unions are normative, not extraordinary.

    Secondly, history has shown time and time again that public employers are quite capable of acting in ways unfair to workers. Do you think no public workplace has ever been unsafe? That no pubic worker has ever been the victim of discrimination, sexual harrassment, or nepotism? Do you think every disabled public worker has been offered reasonable accomodations for his disability? No public worker has ever been falsely accused of a workplace infraction? No public worker has ever been denied fair wages or benefits?