Labor Pains: Catholics Have a Long History of Support for Unions, but the Recent Protests in Wisconsin Show How Strained the Relationship Has Become

By Hannum, Kristen | U.S. Catholic, August 2011 | Go to article overview

Labor Pains: Catholics Have a Long History of Support for Unions, but the Recent Protests in Wisconsin Show How Strained the Relationship Has Become


Hannum, Kristen, U.S. Catholic


Veteran Catholic lawmaker Timothy Cullen was the last Wisconsin Democratic state senator to leave Madison on a chilly winter morning this past February. The other 13 had already fled the capital and across the Illinois state line, immune from any attempt to force them back to vote on the usually mundane budgetary fix to adjust the state budget.

This year the fix was anything but mundane. Newly inaugurated Gov. Scott Walker's plan included a provision that shocked even Republican leaders. It would strip most public employees of the right to collective bargaining regarding their working conditions and benefits. This came on the heels of tax cuts that Walker had pushed through the new Republican majorities in both legislative houses--including tax cuts on capital gains, for corporations, and for the wealthy. It was the attack on collective bargaining (where workers agree to be represented by a union for negotiations over work conditions, wages, and benefits), however, that sparked weeks of protests and apparently divided even Wisconsin's Catholic bishops between support for the unions and the governor.

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Cullen says the governor's collective bargaining bill divided Wisconsin as he's never seen the state divided before. That division extends to the state's more than 1.6 million Catholics--29 percent of the population.

Cullen made it to Illinois, denying the 19 Senate Republicans a 20th member necessary for the quorum needed to vote on budgetary bills. He didn't stay there, though, even after the Republicans voted to order the forcible detention of their Democratic counterparts. He returned home every weekend, attending Sunday Mass at the picturesque, steepled St. Patrick Church in Janesville, the parish he grew up in and where his uncle was ordained a priest 70 years ago.

Walker became nationally known as network news carried stories week after week on the protests in Madison and on the fugitive senators. Suddenly Americans needed to learn--or relearn--just what collective bargaining was all about.

Catholics had an additional task: To square how they felt about the Wisconsin brouhaha with Catholic social teaching. "It's not always easy to sort out social teachings from political stands," warns Bishop Stephen Blaire of Stockton, California. "Catholic social teaching should inform a person's politics, not the other way around."

Considering the church's tremendous potential to frame and clarify the debate, what happened in Wisconsin this year suggests this might be a good time for American Catholics to renew their acquaintance with the church's social encyclicals and to remember Catholics' history as the backbone of the U.S. labor movement. This is, after all, the 120th anniversary of Pope Leo XIII's 1891 encyclical Rerum Novarum, the church's founding document on social justice teaching and its support for working people and unions.

Public vs. private divide

Just two days after the Madison protests began, Milwaukee Archbishop Jerome Listecki and the Wisconsin Catholic Conference issued a statement. Difficult economic times do "not nullify the moral obligation each of us has to respect the legitimate rights of workers," Listecki wrote. He quoted Pope

Benedict XVI's 2009 encyclical 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. ]he repeated calls issued within the church's social doctrine, beginning with Rerum Novarum, for the promotion of workers' associations that can defend their rights must therefore be honored today even more than in the past."

The question in Wisconsin was whether public employees should have the same right to collective bargaining as employees at private companies. The 1935 U.S. National Labor Relations Act officially recognized the right to collective bargaining for private-sector workers. …

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