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.

Monday, September 21, 2015

Public-sector unions, solidarity, and Chicago's Catholic schools

In this post, over at Distinctly Catholic, Michael Sean Winters discusses a recent lecture given by Archbishop Cupich to the members of the Chicago Federation of Labor regarding, among other things, "right to work" proposals.  Michael Sean writes:

Archbishop Cupich also made clear that the Church has drawn no distinction between the rights of private and public sector employees: All have the right to organize. Some libertarian opponents of organized labor have argued that because the Church does not specifically address public sector unions, those workers do not have the right to organize. This is foolishness. Imagine how that principle would work in other areas. The Church has not made a list of all illicit sexual acts, it has merely stated that non-procreative sexual acts are illicit. Are we to think that perhaps some of them are actually okay because they were not explicitly named? +Cupich was clear: “Similarly, the Church has consistently taught that workers have a right to have a voice in the workplace, to form and join unions, to bargain collectively and protect their rights. And the Church has never made a distinction between private and public sectors of the work.” Whatever issues any of us has with public sector unions, and I have my own with the teachers’ unions especially, their right to organize is not at issue in the eyes of the Church.

I have said, many times here at Mirror of Justice, that it is a mistake to claim that Catholic Social Teaching requires, or even weighs in favor of, endorsing all the particulars of public-sector unionism as it exists in the United States today.  I do not say this because I'm a libertarian (I'm not), or because I think that invocations of "prudence" excuse one from the task of taking seriously the clear implications of principles like solidarity and the preferential option for the poor (I don't), or because I am somehow being funded by the Koch Brothers (I'm not).  I say this because the context for public-sector unionism differs in relevant respects -- not in all respects, but in some relevant respects -- from unionism in the private, for-profit sector.  These differences are relevant to incentives, bargaining power, accountability, and transparency, and they permit us to conclude (I think we do well to conclude) that, sometimes, it makes sense to treat public-sector unions and their claims differently than we might treat private-sector unions and their claims.

I am not, obviously, making the claim that Michael Sean calls "foolishness," i.e., that public-sector workers do not have the right to associate.  The right to associate is a human right.  I am saying (and, again, it is sensible, not foolish, to say this) that the labor relationship between a public employee and the political community differs in some ways that matter from the relationship between, say, a factory worker and the factory-owning corporation, its CEO, its Board, its shareholders, etc., and that these differences are relevant, not to the question of a right to associate or organize but to some policy questions.

So, again, I agree with Michael Sean that, whatever the issues he and I have with teachers unions (and I, like him, have many with teachers unions!), their right to "organize" is not at issue.  But this fact does not mean that, for example, that we must (or even should) support laws imposing closed-shop-type arrangements on public schools and public-school teachers.  

The question -- "Should we support unions and the right to associate, or not?" -- is not the one, it seems to me, that very often presents itself in politics.  Instead, we're presented with, for example, the fact that the largest labor unions (some public and some private) have been donating lots and lots of money -- members' dues, presumably -- to Planned Parenthood and the fact that Richard Trumka has issued a statement defending Planned Parenthood, even after the recent horrible videos.  It seems relevant to the question "should a Catholic support this particular union and laws that increase its power?" that that particular union is using its power to advocate for Planned Parenthood and the public funding of its operations.  (Again, it's not that workers somehow lose their human right to associate because some labor unions behave badly; its that labor unions and their actions are not immune from criticism, and opposition, simply by virtue of the fact that Catholic Social Teaching supports the right of workers to organize.) 

Back to Archbishop Cupich's talk:  I hope the union members listened to him closely, because he issued a respectful, charitable, but unmistakable message to them, i.e., that they should support (and not oppose, as the teachers unions almost always do) policies that are designed to enhance the freedom and effective ability of parents to choose Catholic schools for their children.

One of the things I am most impressed with since I have come to Chicago is the outstanding work of our Catholic schools in some of the poorest and toughest parts of our city. I am also impressed by the service they give to the children of workers and the children of the unemployed. I admire the good work of all those, in public and non-public education alike, who offer their skills, knowledge and dedication in our inner city schools. But I am haunted and challenged by the powerful economic forces, social pressures and demographic trends that put inner city Catholic education at risk. I know that many of you share my view that the diminishment of inner city Catholic education would be a loss for lots of kids, for their families, their neighborhoods and the larger Chicago family. I am encouraged that many labor leaders are supporting the Illinois Kids Campaign’s education tax credit initiative.

Many in the labor movement found in Catholic schools a way forward to a better future for their families and many of you send your children to our schools today. I don’t want or expect anyone to turn away from the struggles to support and improve public education. Most kids, most Catholic kids, are in our public schools just as many kids in Catholic schools are not Catholic. But the way I look at it, we should come to an agreement that whether they are in public or private or parochial schools, they’re all our kids and deserve the best education this country has to offer.

So, what I am offering is a hand of friendship, inviting all to work together to improve the education of all our kids and as a part of that, to work to keep alive the remarkable service of inner city Catholic schools that are beacons of hope in some of the poorest neighborhoods of Chicago. You can count on me to work with others to support public education, its funding and improvement. But, I also invite and need your help in avoiding the loss of valuable Catholic schools that provide help, hope and are an essential contribution to a better Chicago.

It sounds to me like the Archbishop has been reading Nicole Stelle Garnett's and Margaret Brinig's Lost Classrooms, Lost Community (which Michael Sean generously reviewed here)!



Garnett, Rick | Permalink