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Unions Still Seen as Force for Good, Though Some Harbor Doubts
Mark Pattison
Source: Catholic News Service
Published: Wednesday, August 10, 2011
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Wisconsin Republican Gov. Scott Walker speaks to the media in Madison Feb. 21.
WASHINGTON (CNS)—Although the percentage of the U.S. workforce they represent has shrunk over much of the past half-century and some Catholic critics contend that their time has come and gone, labor unions are still viewed as a force for good for their members.

Much of the recent debate over unions stemmed earlier this year from a series of bruising budget battles in states generally led by new Republican governors and legislative majorities as they sought to curb collective bargaining rights and discontinue union membership as a condition of employment, which were framed as ways to keep state budgets in check.

"One has to make a distinction between unions as they were conceived in social teaching and unions that exist on the basis of taxpayer funding," said Patrick Carey, professor of theology at Milwaukee's Marquette University, in the cover story in the August issue of U.S. Catholic magazine, "Labor Pains."

Syndicated columnist George Weigel wrote earlier this year that today's unions are not like the kind envisioned by Pope Leo XIII, who ushered in the era of Catholic social teaching with the 1891 encyclical "Rerum Novarum," and by Blessed John Paul II, who wrote the encyclical "Laborem Exercens" 30 years ago.

They are different from "unionized American public school teachers who make decent salaries with good health and pension benefits, often work nine months of the year and are sometimes difficult to fire even if they commit crimes," said Weigel.

He also argued that a key theme of "Laborem Exercens" is "the innate dignity of work," but the pope also called unions an "indispensable element of social life, especially in modern industrial societies."

Thomas Shellabarger, a former domestic policy adviser for the U.S. bishops and now a public policy associate for Chicago-based Interfaith Worker Justice, said no difference exists between today's unions and those of yesterday.

"It's always interesting that they (critics) go back to 1891 and say workers today aren't like workers in 1891 and then they go to Blessed John Paul II and say, 'We're no longer like we were in 1981 when John Paul was talking about it,'" Shellabarger told Catholic News Service.

"They constantly forget about the purpose" of each of those documents, he said: "to put the person at the center of economic activity, and the right to speak up and be involved about issues that impact their life."

The fracas over unions started earlier this year in Wisconsin, where Democratic lawmakers fled the state to deter enactment of a budget bill that would have stripped key collective bargaining rights from state workers, setting off waves of protests in Madison, the state capital, followed by recall elections aimed at tilting the balance of power in the state Senate.

The latest salvo was a standoff in Congress over Federal Aviation Administration funding. The Democratic-majority Senate refused to consider a bill passed by the Republican-led House that included a provision negating a recently awarded right to unions in the airline and railroad industries -- the right to more easily win representation elections, no longer automatically counting nonvoting would-be members as "no" votes.

A temporary break in the stalemate Aug. 5 ended a two-week furlough of about 4,000 FAA workers and another 70,000 workers on FAA-funded construction projects.

Adrian Dominican Sister Mary Priniski, former executive director of the Boston-based Labor Guild and current mid-Atlantic chapter prioress for her order, said she traveled to Wisconsin in March for one of the protests.

"It was wonderful!" she told CNS. "I have never been in a group of people that was more courteous to law enforcement, to the speakers, to each other. This is the first demonstration I'd ever been at where (when) the speaker came up, the people chanted 'Thank you! Thank you! Thank you! Thank you!'"

A vice president of Catholic Scholars for Worker Justice, Sister Mary said she still marvels at "the gratitude of the people of Wisconsin for the support they've gotten from the unions, from the religious community, from the people from outside the state that joined in."

Father Robert Sirico, president of the Acton Institute based in Grand Rapids, Mich., said in an article titled "Blessed John Paul vs. Public Sector Unions," published in the July issue of Legatus magazine, that the anti-worker conditions described in "Rerum Novarum" are different from those in states like Wisconsin and Ohio.

"We see that this really has happened in the U.S., especially with the public employee unions. They are in lockstep with one political party and they advance that agenda," Father Sirico said. Public employees, he said, "like everyone else, have a responsibility to act for the common good."
Legatus magazine is published by Legatus, a membership organization for Catholic CEOs and presidents.
Sister Monica McGloin, a Dominican Sister of Hope who chairs the Interfaith Committee for Worker Justice that serves the Cincinnati area, sees S.B. 5, the Ohio law that curtailed state workers' collective bargaining rights, as "an attack on organizing in any way."

"And the fallout will not stay with the public sector," she told CNS. "It will move to the private sectors and we'll go back to the way we were before the labor movement, and that is very troubling to me. It seems to me we have not been paying attention to the good things that have been brought (about) by the labor movement."

A ballot measure to repeal S.B. 5 will reach Ohio voters in November.

Sister Monica noted that members of her organization "don't work for a union, but we have certain things that we care about—and that is the right of the people to organize and the right of the people to form associations in the workplace. How people do it is up to them."

Sister Mary, the Adrian Dominican, said those protesting in Wisconsin "see this as not just an issue for workers, they see this as an issue for democracy."

During a panel discussion on "Rerum Novarum" in Washington in May, retired AFL-CIO President John Sweeney urged a renewed partnership between church and labor, "if the labor movement is to survive and perpetuate our mission of being what amounts to an action arm of Catholic social teaching."

"We should challenge every priest to be a labor priest, every bishop to be a labor bishop, every cardinal to be a labor cardinal ... just as every pope since Leo XIII has been a labor pope," he said.

International Association of Machinists President Thomas Buffenbarger met recently at the Vatican with Pope Benedict XVI. Both men recalled the support their predecessors, William Winpisinger and Pope John Paul, gave to the Solidarity trade union movement in Poland.

According to Clayton Sinyai of the Catholic Labor Network, the birth of Solidarity in the government-run shipyards of Gdansk made it "a union of public employees."

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