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THE “DAYS OF RAGE” FOR PUBLIC EMPLOYEES: A CATHOLIC SOCIAL TEACHING EVALUATION OF PUBLIC SECTOR UNIONISM

March 2, 2011

Neither Left nor Right, but Catholic

THE “DAYS OF RAGE” FOR PUBLIC EMPLOYEES: A CATHOLIC

SOCIAL TEACHING EVALUATION OF PUBLIC SECTOR UNIONISM

By Stephen M. Krason

With the “Battle of Madison” that has flashed before the American public since mid-February, and the lesser struggles heating up in such places as Ohio and Indiana, two questions  present themselves: Are these situations comparable to the plight of workers in the earlier days of harsh industrialization in the context of social Darwinist economic liberalism? Do public employees have the rights to unionize, engage in collective bargaining, and even strike—and should they make the monetary demands that they do?

Clearly, the answer to the first question is no. While there may once have been a time when public employees lagged behind the private sector in compensation, that is not the case today. Even though some dispute that public employees on average do better financially than those in the private sector, the fact is that state and local employees in 2009 received total compensation of over $12 per hour more than the latter ($39.60 to $27.42). This represented 35% higher wages and 69% greater benefits. In 2008, federal employees received over $7,600 more in salary and nearly $30,000 more in benefits than private sector employees in similar-type jobs (all these statistics are from the U.S. Labor Department). This is not the “stuff” of slave labor or Hitler-like oppression that Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker, who wants to curtail public employee compensation and collective bargaining rights, has been accused of by some. It is not even at question that public employees are receiving a just wage compared to others.

Almost certainly, despite the fact that the much greater job security in the public sector harkened way back to the implementation of civil service, these public employee advantages are due in part to unionization (it is the only sector of the economy in which union membership has grown). Still, we must confront the second question. While Catholic social teaching makes no distinction between public and private sector employees when it addresses the right to form unions (with the right to collective bargaining that is implied with it), it is also clear that through much of its history the labor problem was in private industry. The Church is aware that businesses produce things and make profits, and so workers should have a just return for their efforts. Government does not produce much of anything, and must rely on taxation, mandatory fees, and deficit spending to compensate its employees. The Church is not oblivious to economic realities and this different situation of business and government. This is a mere matter of the obvious, and as Pope John Paul II said the ultimate standard must be what is reasonable.

Since sustaining large numbers of public employees and sizable compensation packages typically means higher taxes—most government spending goes for personnel costs— there is a possible moral problem, suggested by Catholic social teaching, that is seldom mentioned. The great Pope Leo XIII said that taxation must be fair and excessive taxation indirectly violates the natural right of private property. With the average American paying perhaps as much as a third of his income in direct and indirect taxes, we may be at that point. Are public employees prospering on the backs of many less advantaged people in the population?

Perhaps it was an awareness of all this that, despite the Church’s traditional support for the cause of workers, motivated the Wisconsin bishops to take an essentially a neutral stance in the standoff there. Archbishop Jerome Listecki of Milwaukee has publicly stated what the social teaching has consistently held: that unions, like other entities, must work for the common good. He has stressed that they too must make sacrifices when necessary and “adjust to new economic realities.” This echoes what John Paul said in Laborem Exercens: “Union demands cannot be turned into a kind of group or class ‘egoism.’”

While most public employees around the country do not have the right to strike, the teacher “sick-outs” and the like in Wisconsin are akin to this. The Church upholds the right to strike in general and, again, does not distinguish between the private and public sectors. Nevertheless, Laborem Exercens is reticent about any workers using the strike, calling it merely “one method” and an “extreme means.” It suggests an even more restrained view for public employee strikes in saying, “essential community services” must always be maintained and strikes may not be used for “political purposes.” One might argue that the strike-like confrontations in Madison, which seek to stop the state from adopting a certain set of public policies to deal with serious budget problems, have a “political purpose.”

The very confrontational, uncompromising attitude that public sector unions have been exhibiting opposes another basic teaching of the Church in labor-management affairs: the need to work cooperatively.

The other moral question—again, almost never thought of as such—presented by the current public employee budgetary controversies concerns the very size and role of government. The principle of subsidiarity, the Church’s condemnation of socialism, and her rejection of the welfare state all indicate that big, bloated government is unacceptable. The basic solution for the  problems of large public payrolls and budget deficits—while at the same time not causing more unemployment problems and social dislocation—is for decisionmakers to firmly set themselves on what a previous column called a policy of gradual disengagement. It also requires a changed attitude on the part of Americans generally about expecting government to provide and manage so much for them—and about assuming more responsibility for themselves.

Stephen M. Krason is Professor of Political Science and Legal Studies at Franciscan University of Steubenville and Co-founder and President of the Society of Catholic Social Scientists.

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