Unions and the Catholic Way

Government union employees have been celebrating the success of their $3- million campaign, which overturned Ohio’s government labor-relations act, a legal measure that had curtailed some of the powers of public sector unions. The message unions sent to cash-strapped municipalities throughout the nation was: “Don’t mess with our power, perks, and pensions and don’t expect us to share the pain.”

This is a far cry from the American labor movement the Church and its members helped found in the nineteenth century.

In the 1880s, the unions that were founded to represent coal miners, steelworkers, manufacturing and craft workers, and various other trades had heavy Catholic membership. And, for the most part, the American Catholic hierarchy blessed these new unions for attempting to improve the lot of the faithful. In his book, Our Christian Heritage, James Cardinal Gibbons promoted the right of workers to organize unions, and condemned child labor and monopolies.

Pope Leo XIII’s 1891 encyclical letter Rerum Novarum was a great victory for Cardinal Gibbons and the American bishops who defended organized labor against Europeans who believed unions would inevitably promote socialism. In that document, the pope reasoned that there are human limits to the amount of work one can do, hence daily labor, “should be regulated as not to be protracted over longer hours than strength admits.” He also addressed the plight of Pennsylvania coal miners: “Those who work in mines and quarries and extract coal, stone and metals from the bowels of the earth should have shorter hours in proportion as their labor is more severe and trying to health.”

Leo acknowledged the right of laborers to form unions and concluded that such associations must serve the common good. Unions, he explained, have intrinsic value. In addition, they can offer “many advantages to the workmen . . . [and] should become more numerous and more efficient.”

In the post-World War II era, labor unions reached their apex, and Catholics made up the largest single group of union members. The first president of the merged AFL-CIO, George Meany, a Catholic recipient of Notre Dame University’s Laetare Medal, was a pro-growth “wage and work” Democrat and a staunch anti-communist cold warrior, as were many of his union’s members.

In May 1970, for instance, thousands of construction and trade-union members marched on Wall Street to counter anti-Vietnam war rallies. And in 1972, Meaney’s AFL-CIO declined to endorse the presidential nominee of the Democratic Party, George McGovern, because he was perceived to be soft on communism and because he supported leftist big-government policies that would wreck the U.S. economy. Many of the union’s blue-collar members were socially conservative and went on to become Reagan Democrats.

But as America’s manufacturing base and industrial might slipped in the 1970s, the membership of private sector unions also began to decline. In 1970, 33 percent of that workforce was represented by unions. Today, it’s 6 percent.

             James Cardinal Gibbons, Archbishop of Baltimore and an advocate of union labor

The new organized labor force consists of public employee unions and private social-services unions (hospital, daycare, health clinic workers) whose employers are quasi-public because they are dependent on federal, state, and municipal funding.

Catholic Charities is a perfect example of a quasi-public agency. In the 1960s, only 10 percent of its income came from government – now that number is north of 60 percent and in some places much higher. This may explain why some Catholic lobbyists in state capitals are more concerned with preserving social service funding than with eliminating abortion funding.

Government-employee, teacher, and healthcare unions that pursue self-interest – not public interests – have in many ways perverted the original intent of organized labor. They are no longer proponents of fair treatment, but of never ending entitlements that have resulted in the high taxes and longer-term municipal debt that is driving many state and local governments to the brink of bankruptcy.

In my home state, New York, we have the highest combined state and local taxes in the nation because our government and legislative leaders are beholden to public, teacher, and healthcare labor unions, which reward them with campaign contributions and union volunteers.

Tammany Hall bosses no longer control the political process and political agendas – the unions do. And woe to the elected official who strays and publicly supports charter schools or aid to parochial schools or Medicaid reform or pension reform or cuts in wasteful social spending to balance budgets. The unions will order their membership to the polls to evict that person from office.

In New York City, the public/non-profit sector is 38 percent of the electorate and in economically challenged Upstate New York, their vote tops 50 percent. As a result of this power, the average New York public sector salary is $60,000 v. $45,000 in the private sector. New York spends $46 billion on Medicaid to keep empty hospitals afloat – more than the combined Medicaid spending of Texas, California, and Florida. Education spending is hitting $20,000 per capita while SAT scores continue to decline.

The Manhattan Institute’s Steve Malanga justly describes public servants as New York’s political masters. “Working both within the Democratic Party and outside it,” he has written, “they have created a coalition of public-sector interests – of tax eaters. Irrespective of the public interest, their interest is always more: more [public] workers with more pay, more social services, more pensions, more benefits – and more taxes.”

When Pope Leo XIII and the American bishops spoke in favor of organized labor, they argued that, to achieve the common good, society must secure for the laborers the status of dignity in the workplace and some security. Today these unions are not interested in pursuing the common good, whereby all members of society benefit, but a collective good in which their group benefits to the exclusion of other groups.

And the public be damned.

George J. Marlin, Chairman of the Board of Aid to the Church in Need USA, is the author of The American Catholic Voter and Sons of St. Patrick, written with Brad Miner. His most recent book is Mario Cuomo: The Myth and the Man.