State of the Unions

The newly elected Republican governor of Wisconsin, Scott Walker, wants to balance his state’s budget by slashing the wages and benefits of state employees and eliminating most of their collective-bargaining rights for good measure.

This deeply cynical attack on workers’ rights brought tens of thousands of protesters to the Capitol in Madison and induced the Democrats in the Wisconsin senate to flee the state, thus denying Republicans a quorum and stymieing the governor’s plans, at least temporarily. These tactics are not likely to stop Walker’s legislation in the long run, however, and its passage will be a blow both to economic justice and to good government.

Few knowledgeable people doubt that the medical and pension benefits of most unionized state employees need to be renegotiated if the states are to balance their budgets and get long-term entitlement costs under control, a fact already conceded by Wisconsin’s unions. For decades, too many governors have signed off on generous benefit packages for state workers, leaving their successors to figure out how to pay for it all. But to suggest, as Walker and a number of other Republican governors have, that the current fiscal problems in the states have been caused by the unions is scapegoating. The states have been plunged into the red by the ongoing effects of the recession, which was caused not by unions but by the financial skullduggery of bankers (see Charles R. Morris, "The Two Economies"). The worst recession since the Depression dramatically reduced tax revenues while simultaneously increasing the need for social services. Stimulus money from Washington helped the states balance their budgets over the past few years, but Republicans in Congress have put an end to such “bailouts.” A combination of higher taxes and government belt-tightening is now needed—in other words, shared sacrifice, not political pandering. Illinois and Connecticut are trying to implement such fiscally responsible policies. Governor Walker has chosen the low road, exploiting the economic fears of voters by demonizing public employees. (Or most public employees: his legislation shamelessly exempts the unions that supported his candidacy, such as firefighter and police unions.)

The right of workers to unionize and bargain with employers for a living wage and decent medical, disability, and retirement benefits is a long-standing principle of Catholic social teaching, enunciated in unambiguous terms in encyclicals issued by nearly every pope from Leo XIII to Benedict XVI. Wisconsin’s Catholic bishops and other religious leaders have voiced their opposition to Walker’s proposal and their support for the unions and the rights of workers to collective bargaining. Economic justice, not economic growth, is the cornerstone of the church’s social teaching. It condemns the social and material damage done when employees and their families are treated as voiceless underlings or disposable parts. It understands unions to be vital mediating institutions between the state or corporation and the otherwise isolated individual, who would be ineffective if she or he acted alone. The defense of the rights of workers is also one of the important ways in which the church supports and strengthens democratic institutions and government. Unions, like churches, civic and voluntary organizations, professional and business groups, families, and a host of other associations, are essential in creating the “social solidarity” we need in order to recognize what actions best promote the common good. It’s true, of course, that unions sometimes abuse their power, and when they do they must be held accountable. But, without them, who holds employers accountable?

In the 1950s, a third of all American workers were union members. Today that number is less than 12 percent. Public employees now account for more than 50 percent of all unionized workers. As union membership has declined, so have all working- and middle-class incomes. At the same time, the concentration of wealth among the top 1 percent of earners has reached levels not seen since the 1920s. As Peter Steinfels points out in his review of Winner-Take-All Politics ("The Great Reversal"), “our democracy has become the most economically unequal nation in the advanced world.” This did not happen by accident. Over the past three decades, business and corporate interests have spent billions to limit taxation, constrain the reach of government, delegitimize unions, and attack any effort to distribute the nation’s wealth more equitably. Institutions that used to look out for the welfare of the average American worker have disappeared or looked the other way—and that includes the Democratic Party. Is it any wonder that the average citizen is so alienated from government or that the nation’s politics have become so bitter and confrontational? 

For democracy to work, citizens must organize to defend their legitimate interests. For the market to work—for everyone—workers must have a say in the decisions that affect them and their families. That is what unions are for. The weaker the bargaining power of unions, the fainter the voice of the people becomes.

February 22, 2011

Related: Power Play, by E. J. Dionne Jr.

Published in the 2011-03-11 issue: 
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