Mirror of Justice

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Monday, August 4, 2014

Catholic Social Teaching and public-employee unions

Prof. Meghan Clark argued recently, in this piece ("Power to the Public Workers"), that the deeply rooted Catholic principles and teachings having to do with the dignity of work and workers mean, in practice, that public-employee unions should not be distinguished from private-sector-employee unions when it comes to collective bargaining and other labor-related policies.

I have contended often here at MOJ and elsewhere  that "it is both appropriate and important to distinguish, for purposes of thinking about the implications of the Church's teachings regarding the dignity of work and workers, between public-employee unions and private-sector unions."  To quote an earlier post:

(The point, obviously, is not that public-sector work and workers are less worthy of respect but that the dynamic between employer and employee is meaningfully different and different in ways that are relevant to evaluating the positions, and the power, of public-employee unions.)   As I wrote a few years ago:

To be clear:  Civil society matters; the human person is relational and situated; work is a participation in the creative activity of God; all human persons, because they are persons, possess a dignity; workers have a right to associate, organize, and advocate (consistent with public order and the common good) for their interests; and profit-maximization is not a moral-trump.  Labor unions helped bring about many good things; opponents of labor unions have often done bad things.  It would be wrong for a political community to prohibit or unreasonably burden the freedom of association that workers (like the rest of us) enjoy.  In other words, much of what left-leaning Catholics like Michael Sean Winters andMorning's Minionand Lew Daly have been saying about labor-related matters is true.

But . . . just as "subsidiarity" is more than a slogan about "small government", the writing and thought of Leo XIII on the social question and the social order is not reducible to "unionism, as presently defended and advocated for in early 21st century America, is to be supported by faithful, thoughtful Catholics."  It's not that unions were once necessary, but now they are not.  It's that unionism is to be supported by faithful, thoughtful Catholics when it is consistent with, and actually carrying out, Catholic Social Doctrine, and not (or, at least, not necessarily) when it is not.  To resist overreach and bad-acting by unions is, well, to resist overreach and bad-acting; it's not to stomp on Rerum novarum.

In my view, it is vital to keep in mind, as we try to think with Christ and the Church -- and not with either the Chamber of Commerce or the Democratic Party -- about union-related policy, to take into account (to the extent we can) the costs and benefits of proposals and practices, and to look at what unions are, and are not, actually doing with the power they have, and not merely to wield a "the Church teaches that unions are good" stamp.  In fact, unions and unionism are sometimes bad (just as religious freedom -- which is good -- is sometimes abused). 

For example:  In the United States, teachers unions are, on balance, definitely not good.  They have, historically, been a powerful force for anti-Catholicism and the obstruction of reforms, including reforms that the Church clearly teaches are morally required.  It is a grave injustice to require parents who want their children to be educated in (reasonably regulated and reasonably well performing) Catholic schools to pay twice (that is, to deny public funding to those parents).  Legislatures should not extend special powers to teachers unions, and they should oppose them to the extent it is necessary to re-orient education-related spending and policy in the best interests of children (and in a way that advances religious freedom and pluralism) and not of public employees who work in government-run schools.  Another point:  It isnotgood for unions to use workers’ contributions to support political causes –say, abortion rights – that are not relevant to the association’s purpose and mission.

Prof. Clark writes:

Our teachers, librarians, police, firefighters, sanitation workers, and all civil servants actively contribute to the common good. They and their jobs are not lesser because their wages are funded by your taxes. They have equal dignity with private employees. In this current wave of hostility toward public workers, Catholic social teaching reminds us that the dignity of all workers—public and private—grounds their basic right to association, including the right to unionize and bargain collectively. 

I agree entirely with the first three of these sentences, but have to respectfully disagree with the suggestion that public employees' "equal dignity" means that the content and limits of their "right to unionize" are or should be the same as that of private-sector employees.  That the employer is not "capital" but is, instead, the political community is, it seems to me, very relevant to questions about the employer-employee relationship.  The employer -- again, the political community -- has obligations not only to its employees, but also to citizens, taxpayers, and -- as the looming crisis in underfunded public-employee pensions reminds us -- future generations.

http://mirrorofjustice.blogs.com/mirrorofjustice/2014/08/catholic-social-teaching-and-public-employee-unions.html

Garnett, Rick | Permalink