Public Employee Unions and the Common Good

Robert Kennedy Discusses Catholic Principles for Navigating an Emerging Conflict

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By Annamarie Adkins 

ST. PAUL, Minnesota, MARCH 6, 2011 (Zenit.org).- Battles between state governments trying to control their budgets and public employee unions trying to protect their members' wages and benefits have reached a boiling point in the United States, particularly in the state of Wisconsin, where Governor Scott Walker is pushing to pass legislation that would end collective bargaining power for the public sector unions.

Protests have been going on there for weeks, and the police have been sent out to locate legislators refusing to vote on the bill.

The Catholic Church has long been a stalwart defender of the dignity of labor, the rights of workers, and workers associations. But do those same principles of the Church's social teaching apply when the workers do not need to be safeguarded from a profit-seeking enterprise? Similarly, what if these public unions are extracting benefits that so much that they bankrupt the government entities upon which society relies to maintain peace, order, and the common good?

For some thoughtful guidance on this conflict, ZENIT turned to Dr. Robert Kennedy, Professor of Catholic Studies and co-director of the Terrence J. Murphy Institute for Catholic Thought, Law and Public Policy at the University of St. Thomas. Kennedy is a noted expert in Catholic Social Thought, whose books includes "The Good that Business Does" (Acton).

Kennedy explained why a union's activities must be measured by its commitment to the flourishing of workers, their families, and the common good.

ZENIT: The right of labor to organize in unions has been a consistent feature of the modern Catholic social tradition that began with Pope Leo XIII's encyclical, "Rerum Novarum." What principles guided Leo XIII in lending the Church's support to labor unions?

Kennedy: The Catholic social tradition is an element of and is deeply rooted in the larger Catholic moral tradition. When, in 1891, Pope Leo turned his attention to the new challenges of industrialization, he drew upon this larger tradition to defend the legitimacy of private ownership, the importance of work, the rights of workers and the common good of civil society.

The provocation for writing the encyclical came from two new developments of the 19th century. One was the danger of socialism, which denied the right of private ownership and was more or less committed to class conflict. The other was the vulnerability of workers, who had lost their traditional protections in the face of large industrial employers.

Against the socialists, Leo not only vigorously defended private ownership, but insisted that owners and workers in a well-ordered society could and must cooperate to achieve their mutual interests and support the common good. He was not naïve. He recognized that workers' associations could protect workers from the power of large businesses, but he also saw that such associations could serve workers in many ways that went far beyond collective bargaining.

ZENIT: Does Church teaching also support a right to work and not join a union?

Kennedy: The guiding star in these matters is the Church's concern for the human flourishing of the worker and his family. A workers' association, a labor union, is only a means to this end, and if it is a good association it serves a variety of other worthwhile purposes as well.

In the early days, unions provided pensions and life insurance benefits, vocational training, opportunities for socialization and many other services. No doubt Pope Leo had in mind a modern version of the medieval guilds of craftsmen. In the early 20th century, a number of Catholic authors explicitly urged unions to model themselves on these guilds.

The Church strongly supported the right of workers to form unions, in opposition to owners and politicians who denied this right, but not only for purposes of collective bargaining. Indeed, the Church would have supported them if collective bargaining were not involved at all.

By the mid-1950s a new situation arose, where practical opposition to unions had all but disappeared. Instead, there were movements to demand union membership as a condition of obtaining employment. In some parts of the world, labor unions were dominated by Communists, and the Church naturally resisted any measures that would force workers to join such organizations.

But a deeper reason for the Church's reluctance was its conviction that the right to work was a liberty that must be protected for every worker. That is, the worker has a right to seek and obtain employment -- this is not a right to be given a job -- that cannot be unreasonably constrained. While labor unions can benefit workers, every worker should be free to forgo membership if he or she chooses.

Obviously, as the economists will remind us, there are free-rider problems and other issues here, but Pope Pius XII, for example, was quite explicit about defending the right of workers not to join unions. He once remarked that it would be ironic if labor unions, which were formed in part to protect the freedom of workers from large, anonymous businesses, were themselves to become large, anonymous organizations that smothered the freedom of workers.

ZENIT: In Wisconsin, the bishops there, supported by the USCCB, have remained neutral in a struggle between public-sector employees and Governor Walker over a plan to end collective bargaining for many public employees, particularly teachers. Does Church teaching on the dignity of labor associations apply to public-sector unions as well as private ones? If so, then why is that the case, given that public-sector employees are not subject to a profit-seeking enterprise?

Kennedy: Again, the purpose of a labor union is to support the flourishing of workers and their families. In this regard, public-sector unions have the same goal as private-sector unions.

All unions, however, like all associations, also have a duty to respect the common good of the civil society. That is, they exceed their moral boundaries if they attempt to secure benefits for their members that have the effect of undermining the common good of the larger community. This could be the case if a public-sector union employs its power to protect its members at the expense of less powerful members of society.

ZENIT: When evaluating a budget and labor controversy such as the one in Wisconsin, how should one balance the Church's perennial support for unions with the fact that public-sector unions have, in practice, become a large voting bloc that in most cases has traded its political support of one political party for pay, benefits, and pensions that are bankrupting local governments?

Kennedy: The Church has certainly been a champion of the right of workers to form labor unions but has never argued that unions have the liberty to undermine the common good.

Like many other kinds of organizations in many other sectors of society, unions can lose sight of their responsibility to respect the common good in the pursuit of their legitimate objectives. A union, no less than a business trade association, can position itself to exercise disproportionate influence in public life and so the well-being of the community as a whole.

A well-ordered society, in the Catholic view, is one in which the appropriate independence and freedom of each sector -- labor, business and government, for example -- is preserved for the sake of the common good. If this balance breaks down, the common good is likely to suffer.

Historically, one important reason for the Church's support of unions has been the preservation of this balance. There would be no reason for the Church to favor a situation in which union power and influence distorts this balance. If it were the case that unions exercised considerable influence in elections and the elected officials were obligated to the unions as a consequence, the result could easily be contracts that favored union members at the expense of taxpayers and others who may have a claim on public resources.

We should remember, too, that the right to bargain collectively, like most rights, is not absolute. The object of collective bargaining is to protect the more fundamental rights of workers to fair compensation, reasonable working conditions and so on.

Civil authorities may legitimately limit or even suppress the status of a union as the agent for workers in contract negotiations (this is not the same thing as suppressing a union) if collective bargaining, in practice, undermines the common good. But if the state does this, it must ensure that other means are in place, such as civil service regulations, that protect workers.

ZENIT: Is there a practical way to put a system of checks and balances on public-sector employee unions that would be beneficial to taxpayers while at the same time preserving the authentic rights of government workers?

Kennedy: In the social arena, the Church has principles, not prescriptions. It is mindful that the common good is likely to be served by checks and balances on political power and influence but it is open to a wide variety of structures and policies that would achieve this.

Furthermore, there are many instances over the years of distortions in the balance of power and influence that are "corrected" by opposing and equally mischievous distortions. If the unions now have too much power and influence, great care should be taken not to correct this by adopting policies that unfairly prohibit unions from supporting the genuine flourishing of their members.

ZENIT:  Bishop Robert Morlino of Madison, Wisconsin, has called for "fairness" in the negotiations between the parties. What should the measuring sticks of fairness be in such a dispute?

Kennedy: The first thing to remember is that in this arena fairness is more likely to be the result of cooperation than competition and conflict. Fairness may well not result from efforts to force the other party to make concessions. Instead, fairness will follow from a sincere willingness to acknowledge the truth of the situation, which includes at minimum an honest assessment of needs and resources.

Fairness here must also take account of the "forgotten man," the taxpayer, who must bear the burden of funding government. And fairness may require shared risk, which could entail reduced benefits in times of economic stress.

ZENIT: It seems amid all the controversy concerning public employee unions, the neglected principle of solidarity has again been ignored. How might a renewed solidarity between workers, political leaders, and taxpayers broker a practical compromise?

Kennedy: In the Catholic social tradition, solidarity is the virtue by which individuals are firmly committed always to act out of respect for and in support of the common good of the civil society.

Solidarity is diminished or absent in any situation in which parties seek to obtain advantages without regard to the welfare of others. But as a practical matter, solidarity also depends upon trust that others will not seek unfair advantage, as well as a respect for truth.

Therefore, before we can restore solidarity in a troubled situation, we must acknowledge the truth, which requires a high degree of transparency, and we must be willing to respect the persons with whom we interact.