Unions and the Church

A look at the Church’s reaction to the current debate in Wisconsin and elsewhere about the rights of workers and the power of unions.

MADISON, Wis. — Union protests in the Midwest have prompted a muted response from local Catholic bishops, signaling that the once close bonds of Church and labor leaders have loosened in recent decades. But it also indicates that a new generation of bishops approach hot-button economic issues in a more nuanced way.

As throngs of public employees converged on the Madison statehouse to protest legislative efforts to curb their right to collective bargaining and cut benefits in Wisconsin last month, Archbishop Jerome Listecki of Milwaukee issued a carefully worded statement that acknowledged the rights of workers, but included a pointed caveat: “It does not follow from this that every claim made by workers or their representatives is valid.”

“Every union, like every other economic actor, is called to work for the common good, to make sacrifices when required, and to adjust to new economic realities,” said Archbishop Listecki, president of the Wisconsin Conference of Catholic Bishops.

As union protests spread from Wisconsin to other states, Bishop Stephen Blaire of Stockton, Calif., chairman of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops’ Committee on Domestic Justice and Human Development, also issued a statement of “support for and solidarity” with the Wisconsin bishops’ statement on the rights of workers.

Bishop Blaire’s letter, released on Feb. 23, seemed to give additional weight to the rights of workers, within the framework of Catholic social teaching.

But the day after his letter was released, Bishop Robert Morlino of Madison also issued a statement that made a point to describe the Wisconsin bishops’ position as “neutral.”

“Should one support or oppose the legislation which regulates union procedures? The Wisconsin Catholic Conference (WCC) has chosen a neutral stance because the present dilemma comes down to either a choice for the common good, of sacrifice on the part of all, at times that pose immense economic threats, both present and future on the one hand, and on the other hand, a choice for the rights of workers to a just compensation for services rendered, and to the upholding of contracts legally made,” wrote Bishop Morlino in a Feb. 24 column in his diocesan paper, The Catholic Herald.

“As Catholics, we see both of these horns of the dilemma as good, and yet the current situation calls many of us to choose between these two goods. Thus the WCC has taken a neutral stance, and this is the point of Archbishop Listecki’s recent statement, which I have echoed,” said Bishop Morlino.

Union activists had embraced Archbishop Listecki’s statement as an endorsement of their cause. That view was echoed by The New York Times, which characterized the statement as a rebuke to Republican lawmakers, who contend that the partisan alliance of Democratic legislators and public-employee unions has resulted in untenable contracts that have busted state budgets during an era of declining tax revenues.

Last year, the Pew Center on the States underscored the scope of the problem: As of 2008, there was a $1 trillion shortfall between promised payouts by state governments to public employees and the funds actually available to cover pensions and benefits.

Julie Wolf, a spokeswoman for the Archdiocese of Milwaukee, disputed the notion that the archbishop had taken sides in the standoff, describing his statement as non-partisan and “balanced. It reiterated Catholic social teaching on the rights of workers and asks for everyone to work for the common good.” But Wolf noted that her office had been fielding angry calls from “both sides” of the political divide.

Changing Times

A half-century ago, when Catholic bishops and “worker priests” closely collaborated with labor-rights leaders, the position of the Milwaukee archbishop on this issue would not have been in dispute. Today, however, Church leaders no longer play a central role in the labor movement, the result, in part, of changing economic conditions and demographic realities that have made immigration reform the top social-justice issue for many Catholic bishops.

“Thirty years ago, there were more union members in the pews than there are today. The landscape has changed and membership has declined because of economic advancement,” acknowledged Rob Shelledy, coordinator for social justice ministry in the Archdiocese of Milwaukee.

Shelledy noted that Wisconsin has “a higher than average union membership.” Still, he has received calls from Catholics both supporting and opposing the unions’ demands. Some Catholics, he said, were outraged that the archbishop had seemingly endorsed the protesters. Some of the faithful, he said, were surprised to learn that Catholic social teaching had backed labor rights for more than a century.

Reportedly, the archbishop has not been invited to defuse the standoff; for now, Shelledy said, the Wisconsin Conference of Catholic Bishops has no plans to take further action. “The onus is on the elected officials to resolve these matters in a way that respects the common good.”

Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker, a Republican, recently extracted key concessions on pensions and health benefits for public employees, but he still wants an end to their right to collective bargaining — a right denied public-employee unions in some U.S. states.

In Ohio, where Republican lawmakers have demanded similar concessions, public unions successfully resisted the legislative challenge. The Ohio Catholic Conference issued a statement Feb. 28 calling on “leaders in government, labor and business to pursue changes that promote the common good without the elimination of collective bargaining.”

Father Robert Sirico, president of the Acton Institute, a free-market think tank, suggested that the bishops’ response to the union protests marked a new era of episcopal leadership and a more nuanced understanding of economic realities in the United States. 

He noted that both Pope John Paul II and Pope Benedict XVI had sought to reorient an overly politicized approach to social justice concerns and that new Catholic leaders had responded to this new direction. “Politics is not the governing hermeneutic of the Church,” said Father Sirico, “but for many years politics was the whole paradigm through which everything was seen.”

But he also suggested the Wisconsin bishops’ stance implicitly acknowledged “the changing reality of the American Catholic population as a whole.

“The only sector of union membership that is growing is public unions,” he said. “That is highly problematic from a Catholic point of view, because these public unions publicly favor abortion rights and ‘gay marriage’ and seek to undercut the Church’s agenda on social questions.”

Yet, if Wisconsin’s bishops have become more cautious about intervening in partisan matters, old-school Catholic social activists can still be found in the state.

Jesuit Father G. Simon Harak, director of the Center for Peacemaking at Marquette University in Milwaukee, has worked to raise awareness about the root causes of the state’s fiscal crisis.

Recently, with the assistance of the liberal political action group Catholics United, Father Harak worked with an interfaith group to provide “sanctuary” for Wisconsin’s Democratic lawmakers, who fled the state to deprive the Republican majority of a quorum needed to pass “anti-union” legislation.

“The blame has been shifted away from Wall Street and the costs of the war in Afghanistan and Iraq to public unions,” Father Harak contended. “The real question is: How did we get into this mess?”

Joan Frawley Desmond writes from Chevy Chase, Maryland.