Workers’ Rights


Hard economic times demand shared sacrifice.

In New York and other states struggling with severe budget crunches, the inevitable sharp cutbacks in spending will translate into fewer services for taxpayers. Layoffs, hiring freezes and the curtailment of funded programs, including some very good programs, are part of what we’ll have to accept. But the severity of the fiscal crises engulfing so many states also demands a restructuring of outdated and expensive systems that got us into this mess in the first place.

We’re undergoing our own restructuring here in the archdiocese, with some schools being closed in response to higher costs and changing demographics, which have resulted in declining enrollments, and a separate pastoral planning initiative that is in the beginning stage. In government, Gov. Cuomo has appointed a task force to recommend ways of bringing the state’s massive Medicaid expenditures under control, and New York’s Mayor Michael Bloomberg wants an overhaul of the very generous pension and retiree health care benefits provided to city workers.

In Wisconsin, however, the concept of restructuring to save money has gone way over the top.

New Governor Scott Walker, a Republican, has targeted public-employee unions as the villains in the state’s budget woes. He’s sparked massive protests over legislation he’s pushing to strip most government workers—including teachers, but not police or firefighters—of nearly all of their collective bargaining rights.

The unions already have agreed to the financial concessions that Walker sought, namely that they pay half the cost of their pension fund contributions and 12.6 percent of their healthcare coverage. The workers say this will effectively cut their take-home pay by 8 percent.

The 14 Democratic members of Wisconsin’s State Senate staged their own protest by decamping in neighboring Illinois to thwart the legislative quorum needed for a vote on Walker’s plan.

Walker, meanwhile, brushes off critics who say his real goal is to eliminate an important source of campaign funding and volunteers for Democrats. He continues to insist that he needs to restrict the unions’ operations to save money.

But “hard times do not nullify the moral obligation each of us has to respect the legitimate rights of workers,” said Milwaukee Archbishop Jerome E. Listecki, in a strong statement in response to Walker’s efforts.

The archbishop, speaking in his capacity as president of the Wisconsin Catholic Conference, also pointed out the Church’s long history of support for workers’ right to organize, most recently in Pope Benedict XVI’s 2009 encyclical “Caritas in Veritate,” which said the Church’s repeated calls for associations to defend workers’ rights go back to 1891 with the encyclical “Rerum Novarum.” That longstanding support for unions must “be honored today even more than in the past,” Pope Benedict wrote.

Archbishop Listecki also took note of what Pope John Paul II said in his 1981 encyclical “Laborem Exercens,” that a union “remains a constructive factor of social order and solidarity, and it is impossible to ignore it.”

Now, we certainly don’t minimize the influence of public-employee unions on the state and local budget process. However, they are only one part of the equation. Unions can demand the moon and the stars, but the elected officials don’t have to give it to them. There’s a place for responsible leadership that hasn’t been sufficiently exercised—not in New York and not in Wisconsin, not by the lawmakers nor by the unions.

That has to change.

Archbishop Listecki asked legislators in his state to “carefully consider the implications of (Walker’s) proposal and evaluate it in terms of its impact on the common good.”

With the situation remaining fluid this week, and Walker preparing to address the state Tuesday evening, it’s even more critical for all involved to heed the archbishop’s appeal to “lawmakers, citizens, workers and labor unions,” urging them to “move beyond divisive words and actions and work together, so that Wisconsin can recover in a humane way from the current fiscal crisis.”

We agree. Stalemates don’t solve anything. It’s time to move ahead.


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