Drawing a bath for organized labor.

On Monday, Governor Scott Walker made Wisconsin the twenty-fifth state to enact “right to work” legislation. The law is not a jobs program. Neither is it a workers' bill of rights. It permits private-sector workers to opt out of paying fees to unions that negotiate their wages. In other words, it allows such employees to be freeloaders. Federal law already lets employees refuse to join a union, but in states without right-to-work laws employees must pay “fair share” fees to the union that secured their contract. For decades, right-to-work laws have been signed by governors across the South and West. But only recently have Republicans been able to pass them in the labor-strong states of the upper Midwest; Michigan and Indiana adopted right-to-work in 2012, and the new GOP governor of Illinois ran on it. President Barack Obama decried the Wisconsin law as “anti-worker.” The day after Walker signed the bill, the AFL-CIO, along with two other unions, filed a lawsuit challenging the statute—a pro-forma protest. Union leaders know that similar lawsuits in other states have always failed.

Given the Republican dominance of the Wisconsin legislature, the bill’s passage was a fait accompli. But the state senate and assembly held hearings anyway, during which a parade of critics—who vastly outnumbered supporters—voiced their concerns about right-to-work. Union members condemned the measure as an attack on labor. A bankruptcy attorney winkingly begged the legislature to pass the bill because it would be good for his business. And in written testimony the Wisconsin Catholic Conference (WCC) delivered a stirring defense of labor unions, affirming over a century of church teaching promoting their expansion. Or at least that’s what one might expect Catholic bishops to say about anti-union legislation. Instead, Wisconsin’s bishops offered what amounted to an extended shrug.

Quoting from its 2015 public-policy position paper, the WCC insisted that “the economy must serve people, not the other way around.” It continued: “If the dignity of work is to be protected, then the basic rights of workers, owners, and others must be respected.” Those are the kinds of noises one expects to hear from bishops of a church whose popes have promoted labor unions for over a century. “There are not a few associations of this nature,” Pope Leo XIII wrote in Rerum novarum (1891), and still “it were greatly to be desired that they should become more numerous and more efficient.” Leo’s wish has not been granted. In Wisconsin, for example, the percentage of employees who belong to unions has dropped from 14.2 percent in 2010, before Walker became governor, to 11.7 percent last year. Yet, reading the WCC’s testimony, it’s not easy to tell whether the bishops think that’s a bad thing.

Among the “basic rights” of workers, the Wisconsin Catholic Conference listed “the right to productive work, to decent and fair wages, to organize and choose to join a union, to economic initiative, and to ownership and private property.” Did you catch that? Called upon to comment on the right-to-work bill, the Catholic bishops of Wisconsin emphasized not only the right to organize—but also the right to choose not to. What’s more, they seem to have discovered a right previously unknown in Catholic tradition: the right to earn a profit. “The church defends the right of workers to form unions as a natural right,” according to the WCC. “Likewise, it defends the right of employers to earn a profit. The church warns both against the dangers of excessive self-interest.” The WCC continued: “When the interests of both employee and employer are balanced, such that neither tries to damage the other and each cooperates for the advancement of justice and the common good, everyone prospers.”

Excess bad, balance good. Who could disagree? Except that Catholic social teaching has always recognized the power differential between employer and employee. It’s much easier for the person who signs your paychecks to wreck your life than it is for you to wreck hers. When it comes to wage disputes, if workers don’t organize, it’s hardly a fair fight. That is one of the reasons the Catholic tradition views labor unions favorably. Do the Wisconsin bishops? Their statement seems to go out of its way to avoid endorsing unions. Workers might join one. Or not. Also, social justice common good.

The WCC’s testimony stands in stark contrast to Milwaukee Archbishop Jerome Listecki’s 2011 statement in response to Governor Walker’s push to strip most public-sector workers of their right to bargain collectively. Walker argued that it had to be done in order to fill a $30-million hole in the state budget—a hole he opened in part by cutting taxes. (Wisconsin now faces a projected budget shortfall of about $250 million.) “Hard times do not nullify the moral obligation each of us has to respect the legitimate rights of workers,” said Listecki—then president of the Wisconsin Catholic Conference. The archbishop stated the obvious truth that unions are also capable of behaving badly. Nevertheless, he stressed the church’s traditional support for labor unions, quoting Benedict XVI’s Caritas in veritate:

Governments, for reasons of economic utility, often limit the freedom or the negotiating capacity of labor unions. Hence traditional networks of solidarity have more and more obstacles to overcome. The repeated calls issued within the church’s social doctrine, beginning with Rerum novarum [60], for the promotion of workers’ associations that can defend their rights must therefore be honored today even more than in the past, as a prompt and far-sighted response to the urgent need for new forms of cooperation at the international level, as well as the local level.

In 2011, when the government of Wisconsin moved to limit the freedom of public employees to bargain collectively—which is the point of a labor union—the president of the Wisconsin Catholic Conference reminded legislators of their responsibility to respect workers’ rights. (During that debate Walker emptily promised to leave private-sector employee unions alone.) Days after Archbishop Listecki issued his statement, Bishop Stephen Blaire, then chairman of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops domestic-justice committee, publicly praised it.

In 2015, when the government of Wisconsin acted to weaken private-employee unions by depleting their funding, the WCC served thin gruel. After asserting the right of employers to make a profit (whatever that means) and suggesting that Catholic doctrine underscores the right of workers to “choose to join a union,” the WCC asked lawmakers to consider whether the bill would “benefit the common good.” Is that a tough question? While it’s true that measuring the total effect of right-to-work on a state economy is difficult—not least of all because union membership is dwindling nationwide—there’s no mystery about what such laws are designed to do. They deplete union coffers by making it easy for free-riders to avoid paying fair-share fees. Take away those fees and you weaken unions. Weaken unions and you depress wages. Depress wages and you buoy businesses. And, if we’ve learned anything from this economic recovery, during which stocks soar while wages stagnate, it’s that what’s good for businesses is good for businesses.

 “This sends a powerful message across the country and across the world,” Walker said before signing right-to-work into law. Judging from the eight hundred union-related bills pending in state legislatures nationwide, it seems that message was received. In West Virginia, Republican lawmakers want the government to pay lower wages to public employees. Nevada, where union membership has held steady in recent years, is considering a handful of anti-union bills, including one that would allow local governments to trash union contracts during a “fiscal emergency”—defined as a 5-percent reduction in tax revenues. Republicans who introduce bills like these are emboldened by Walker’s anti-union successes. The governor didn’t run on kneecapping unions. But he did it anyway, inviting a storm of protests, which he easily weathered. He survived the second gubernatorial recall election in U.S. history. Then Dairy Staters elected him again. Walker is now the poster boy for shrinking organized labor. He wrote the playbook from which the rest of the GOP is cribbing.

And it looks like Walker has done some cribbing of his own. Echoing the Wisconsin Catholic Conference, the governor explained that “freedom-to-work legislation will give workers the freedom to choose whether they want to join unions.” Or whatever’s left of them.

(H/T Mark Silk)

Grant Gallicho joined Commonweal as an intern and was an associate editor for the magazine until 2015. 

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