Mirror of Justice

A blog dedicated to the development of Catholic legal theory.
Affiliated with the Program on Church, State & Society at Notre Dame Law School.

Thursday, November 10, 2011

"Leo XIII -1, John Kasich - 0"?

That's how Distinctly Catholic's Michael Sean Winters scores the recent un-doing of the not-quite-as recent efforts to rein in public-employee unions in Ohio.  I'd rather agree with Winters, as when he's writing good stuff about the Freedom of the Church, but I'm afraid I cannot here.

I'm pretty sure I'm as big a fan of Leo XIII as there could be, and also that I've read his social-question writings (including Rerum novarum) at least as closely as most, but I'm afraid the better way to score the unfortunate outcome in Ohio is "Big Labor Money, most from out of Ohio -- 1, Our Children, Fiscal Sanity, and Doom Avoidance 0."

To be clear:  mine is not an "anti-union" or anti-labor point, nor am I calling into question the idea that the public employment should be regulated so as to make sure public employees are treated fairly, in safe environments.  Of course private-sector workers have a moral right (and should have a legal right) to unionize, and of course labor unions played an important role in securing various important employment-related regulations and reforms (as well as various in-hindsigh unsustainable practices that are sorely hurting many American companies and driving industry elsewhere).  Still, the notion that the current pensions / benefits / dues-extraction / bargaining / tenure / security regime enjoyed by public-employee unions in places like Ohio is one that is required by (or, indeed, even consonant with), Leo XIII and the Church's social-doctrine is, I think, wrong and bad for our political community and our children.

UPDATE:  Michael responds to me, here.  Two quick points:  First, Michael writes:  "Unions serve as a check on the monied interest, whose power is, in a free society, always going to be dominant. I also see unions as a key part of the social fabric, embodying the kind of intermediate social organizations called for by the Catholic social principle of subsidiarity."  I agree that labor unions (that is, associations of workers) can serve as checks "on the monied interest."  (Whether they always do is an interesting question.)  And, I have never questioned the role of unions in the social fabric or the relevance of the principle of subsidiarity.  But, again, I think this statement does not sufficiently take account of the very different dynamic at play in the relationship between public employees, the government, and taxpayers.  I think it is essential, if we want to implement faithfully the Church's social doctrine, that we take account of this dynamic. 

Second, Michael says "given the choice between raising taxes on rich folk and cutting benefits for teachers and firefighters and policement and sanitation workers, I will vote for raising taxes on the rich every day of the week."  But, with all due respect, this is not the choice I'm addressing, or the one that, really, we face.  In order to avoid very serious fiscal problems in the not-very-distant future, cutting the (in many cases) excessive and inflated and unsustainable benefits of public employees will be necessary, in part because "raising taxes on rich folk" would not and could not supply enough revenue (putting aside questions about who "the rich" are and what their fair-share of taxes should be) to sustain our current practices and meet our current entitlement-spending obligations. 


Garnett, Rick | Permalink

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Some key lines from Rerum Novarum:

"These three important benefits, however, can be reckoned on only provided that a man's means be not drained and exhausted by excessive taxation. The right to possess private property is derived from nature, not from man; and the State has the right to control its use in the interests of the public good alone, but by no means to absorb it altogether. The State would therefore be unjust and cruel if under the name of taxation it were to deprive the private owner of more than is fair." (Parag. 47)

"There are occasions, doubtless, when it is fitting that the law should intervene to prevent certain associations, as when men join together for purposes which are evidently bad, unlawful, or dangerous to the State. In such cases, public authority may justly forbid the formation of such associations, and may dissolve them if they already exist." (52)

"Now, there is a good deal of evidence in favor of the opinion that many of these societies are in the hands of secret leaders, and are managed on principles ill - according with Christianity and the public well-being; and that they do their utmost to get within their grasp the whole field of labor, and force working men either to join them or to starve. Under these circumstances Christian working men must do one of two things: either join associations in which their religion will be exposed to peril, or form associations among themselves and unite their forces so as to shake off courageously the yoke of so unrighteous and intolerable an oppression." (54)

Somehow, I am not convinced that Leo XIII would favor taxing the nongovernmental working class to pay for the not-so-working-class bureaucrats. I'm also not convinced that he'd be in favor of the amount of union dues that go to funding political candidates with decidedly non-Catholic goals. Mr. Winters is taking some big leaps in assigning Leo so strongly on one side of this, and it's a cheap shot for him to assail Ohio's bishops for displaying admirable prudence here.

Posted by: joe reader | Nov 10, 2011 4:20:04 PM

That's very interesting, but I don't see how your reading of Rerum Novarum helps Democrats.

Posted by: Sean Michael Summers | Nov 10, 2011 5:53:29 PM

"What of the middle-aged ‘bag lady’ who may, at this very moment, be sitting on the steps of my residence next door to this cathedral? What of the family evicted by a landlord who is terrified to go to a shelter? These are persons, flesh-and-blood persons, made in God's image. They are not statistics. They are not abstractions or collective nouns. . . . Second Harvest, the country's largest chain of food banks, fed almost 26 million people last year -- nearly 10 percent of America's population. Even so, it had to turn away an estimated 2.3 million hungry people because of a lack of food." This is 26 million plus 2.3 million, 28.3 million hungry people during this economic boom. What is wrong with us! The picture on homelessness is a disgrace...

This is in America, a disgrace! It is because of conditions like these, the conditions that were even more abominable and even more widespread years ago, that unions first came into existence to insist on the right to collective bargaining. An awful lot of us enjoy a measure of dignity and decency and certain prosperity because of the union movement. We should not forget that. Were the right to collective bargaining to be abolished tomorrow, in my judgment, it would not be too many years before such conditions would prevail again in many quarters. I am not sure everyone realizes that, as I am not sure everyone realizes that we still have grave economic and social problems in this country. I am told that because I have supported unionism so strongly for my 14 plus years as archbishop, some parties have been reluctant to contribute to archdiocesan needs. That hit me, for example, when I went over to 42nd Street for a rally for newspaper people on strike. I spoke at that rally, and I was later warned very bluntly, ‘You are hurting the charities and the educational efforts of the Archdiocese of New York.’ Well, obviously I regret the loss to the archdiocese, but I will defend the right to collective bargaining in good faith until the day I die. That is Church teaching. I am supposed to teach Church teaching."

John Cardinal O'Connor - Homily at Sunday Mass in St. Patrick's Cathedral, Sept. 13, 1998

Posted by: dfb | Nov 11, 2011 3:47:36 AM

DFB, non-responsive. My claim has to do with public employees, and it is,well, silly to think that invoking a "middle-aged bag lady" is an adequate response to questions about the sustainability of our current regime.

Posted by: Rick Garnett | Nov 11, 2011 7:13:20 AM

Non-responsive? I offered the quote from Cardinal O'Connor merely as a reminder of the bygone days when a member of the American hierarchy actually (i) attended a rally supporting striking workers, (ii) placed support for collective bargaining above the financial interests of his see, and (iii) expressed concern that some Catholics may be unaware that "we still have grave economic and social problems in this country."

As to your claim regarding public employees, in Laborem exercens Blessed John Paul II asserted:

"All these rights, together with the need for the workers themselves to secure them, give rise to yet another right: the right of association, that is to form associations for the purpose of defending the vital interests of those employed in the various professions. These associations are called labour or trade unions. The vital interests of the workers are to a certain extent common for all of them; at the same time however each type of work, each profession, has its own specific character which should find a particular reflection in these organizations.

In a sense, unions go back to the mediaeval guilds of artisans, insofar as those organizations brought together people belonging to the same craft and thus on the basis of their work. However, unions differ from the guilds on this essential point: the modern unions grew up from the struggle of the workers-workers in general but especially the industrial workers-to protect their just rights vis-a-vis the entrepreneurs and the owners of the means of production. Their task is to defend the existential interests of workers in all sectors in which their rights are concerned. The experience of history teaches that organizations of this type are an indispensable element of social life, especially in modern industrialized societies. Obviously, this does not mean that only industrial workers can set up associations of this type. Representatives of every profession can use them to ensure their own rights. Thus there are unions of agricultural workers and of white-collar workers; there are also employers' associations. All, as has been said above, are further divided into groups or subgroups according to particular professional specializations.

Catholic social teaching does not hold that unions are no more than a reflection of the 'class' structure of society and that they are a mouthpiece for a class struggle which inevitably governs social life. They are indeed a mouthpiece for the struggle for social justice, for the just rights of working people in accordance with their individual professions. However, this struggle should be seen as a normal endeavour 'for' the just good: in the present case, for the good which corresponds to the needs and merits of working people associated by profession; but it is not a struggle 'against' others. Even if in controversial questions the struggle takes on a character of opposition towards others, this is because it aims at the good of social justice, not for the sake of 'struggle' or in order to eliminate the opponent. It is characteristic of work that it first and foremost unites people. In this consists its social power: the power to build a community. In the final analysis, both those who work and those who manage the means of production or who own them must in some way be united in this community. In the light of this fundamental structure of all work-in the light of the fact that, in the final analysis, labour and capital are indispensable components of the process of production in any social system-it is clear that, even if it is because of their work needs that people unite to secure their rights, their union remains a constructive factor of social order and solidarity, and it is impossible to ignore it."

While "modern unions grew up from the struggle of the workers-workers in general but especially the industrial workers-to protect their just rights," the "right" to form associations/unions exists for workers in "all sectors." Presumably you would agree at least in theory that the right extends to police, firefighters, sanitation workers, teachers, etc.?

Ohio SB 5 addressed the right to strike of certain public employees. Laborem exercens also teaches:

"One method used by unions in pursuing the just rights of their members is the strike or work stoppage, as a kind of ultimatum to the competent bodies, especially the employers. This method is recognized by Catholic social teaching as legitimate in the proper conditions and within just limits. In this connection workers should be assured the right to strike, without being subjected to personal penal sanctions for taking part in a strike. While admitting that it is a legitimate means, we must at the same time emphasize that a strike remains, in a sense, an extreme means. It must not be abused; it must not be abused especially for 'political' purposes. Furthermore it must never be forgotten that, when essential community services are in question, they must in every case be ensured, if necessary by means of appropriate legislation. Abuse of the strike weapon can lead to the paralysis of the whole of socioeconomic life, and this is contrary to the requirements of the common good of society, which also corresponds to the properly understood nature of work itself."

While recognizes as an "extreme" method, the strike is also recognized as a "right."

To your concerns about "the current pensions / benefits / dues-extraction / bargaining / tenure / security regime enjoyed by public-employee unions", Laborem exercens also teaches:

"Just efforts to secure the rights of workers who are united by the same profession should always take into account the limitations imposed by the general economic situation of the country. Union demands cannot be turned into a kind of group or class 'egoism', although they can and should also aim at correcting-with a view to the common good of the whole of society- everything defective in the system of ownership of the means of production or in the way these are managed. Social and socioeconomic life is certainly like a system of 'connected vessels', and every social activity directed towards safeguarding the rights of particular groups should adapt itself to this system."

Was there an effort to bargain with public unions in Ohio about unsustainable costs of certain benefits preceding the legislative effort to limit union rights? Would not such an effort be more consistent with a "view to the common good"?


Posted by: dfb | Nov 11, 2011 8:39:55 AM

I am so happy to see someone finally raising the question of the union analysis raised by Leo XIII to PUBLIC employees (who have, by the way, the protections of the civil service on TOP of the unions). My Democrat friends who like to proof-text their political points by Leo completely ignore this.

Posted by: Josh | Nov 11, 2011 10:10:04 AM

But,Rick, none of those facts help Democrats.

Posted by: Dean | Nov 11, 2011 11:10:22 AM

"I agree that labor unions (that is, associations of workers) can serve as checks "on the monied interest." (Whether they always do is an interesting question.)"

As I raised in a comment on his post strangely not yet posted (does ANY blog have a worse comments policy that NCR???) the public employee unions ARE "the monied interest." Moreover, Winters naively asserts that all the imbalances in benefits can be ironed out that very same negotiating table at which the unbalanced packages were first negotiated! The negotiation IS the problem because 9 times out of 10, the negotiating table is bought and paid for by the public employees unions! He completely ignores the substantial research in labor economics that confirms this point on his way to his red herring about raising taxes on "the rich."

Posted by: Josh | Nov 11, 2011 12:37:08 PM

Rick, in your comment as in many voicings which 'support' more or less the recently repealed statute, you ignore the fundamental issues.

First, the individual employee (public or private) is powerless to bargain for a particular wage or benefit. The individual must either accept what he/she is offered, or go elsewhere if there's an elsewhere she/he has access to that provides any better wage. Acting alone, the employee is utterly at the mercy of the employer.

Second, if the current wage and benefit scale for ALL governments in the State covered by the statute is unsustainable, and the fact it is unsustainable is demonstrable and not merely conjectural, then the remedy is that marvelous institution known as collective bargaining. I have worked in many different settings in the course of a lifetime, and have faith that in those the presence of bargaining is useful to both sides. It is unnecessary to remove the bargaining power of only one side, for that licenses the other side to be utterly unreasonable without any risk. The employer can gut the employee compensation plan and the employee has no choice but to accept it or become voluntarily unemployed.

I have never been aware of any employer unilaterally setting wages on the basis of what the employee's family needs for mortgage/rent, utilities, mandatory insurance, transportation, and such 'luxuries' as food and medicine and (Heaven forbid) amusements. I have been aware of unions asking for that.

The statute in question eviscerated one side in the bargaining. Thus the bargaining became a joke.

Posted by: W8kwses | Nov 11, 2011 2:49:39 PM