Clarifying the debate over workers’ rights in Wisconsin
Take away a human right to balance a state budget?
Wisconsin faces a big budget deficit — not as large as Minnesota’s, but a serious challenge nonetheless. Gov. Scott Walker is calling on public employees to help the state meet this financial crisis by agreeing to two separate measures.
One is for public employees to contribute more to their health and pension benefit programs; the other is for the public employees’ unions to give up their right to collective bargaining on all matters except base pay.
As solutions to the debt crisis, these demands from the governor are curious. Requesting workers to contribute more to benefits they receive during this time of need is understandable. Asking them to give up their right to collective bargaining is not.
Helping the common good
Catholic social teaching offers two helpful points for this debate. First, all of us must contribute to the common good, especially when our communities are facing difficult challenges. Typically, we do this through our jobs, volunteering and paying taxes. To ask Wisconsin public employees to contribute more to the state’s effort to deal with the current financial crisis seems like a reasonable request.
The second point from Catholic social teaching that bears on this topic is the right of all workers to collective bargaining. This is one of the primary teachings that launched the first social document, Pope Leo XIII’s “Rerum Novarum” (“On the Condition of Labor”), in 1891.
In 1981 Pope John Paul II continued this teaching with his encyclical, On Human Work, referring to unions as an “indispensable element of social life” (20).
Throughout these teachings there is the constant reminder that unions should not press demands that may be harmful to the larger community. While their specific goal is to secure the rights of workers, unions should do this with an eye to the good of the entire society. Most recently, Pope Benedict XVI underlined this point in his first social encyclical, “Charity in Truth” (64).
In light of these teachings we might expect the public employees’ unions to seriously consider Gov. Walker’s request that they contribute more to their health and retirement benefits. That seems in line with the sacrifices many other Wisconsinites will have to make through the predictable spending cuts to programs across the state.
However, these teachings are equally clear that denying or limiting workers’ rights to collective bargaining is not justified. In “Economic Justice for All” (1986), the U.S. bishops wrote: “No one may deny the right to organize without attacking human dignity itself. Therefore, we firmly oppose organized efforts, such as those regrettably now seen in this country, to break existing unions and prevent workers from organizing (104).
The governor of Wisconsin is demanding that the right to bargain by public employees’ unions be restricted to one issue (base wages) and that these unions have no power to negotiate such topics as health care, working hours and vacations. This is a denial of the right to collective bargaining and of the right to organize. It is an attack upon the dignity of workers.
Pope Benedict XVI seemed to anticipate this development when he wrote in “Charity in Truth” that governments “for reasons of economic utility often limit the freedom or the negotiating capacity of labor unions,” making it more difficult for unions to carry out their legitimate goals of defending the rights of workers. He noted that unions “must therefore be honored today even more than in the past” (25).
Wisconsin, Minnesota and many other states face the challenge of balancing their budgets. It is a difficult task, but one made no easier by embracing measures that threaten human rights.
The action by Gov. Walker and his supporters in the Wisconsin Legislature seems frighteningly close to this. Perhaps this is an example of the extreme measures to which we are tempted when we remove more reasonable options from the table — like raising the needed taxes to fund critical state obligations.