The recent crisis in Wisconsin, Ohio, and Indiana over the rights of public unions will potentially lead to a major decision of the Supreme Court, but it has certainly inspired commentary in the Catholic press and at least among some intellectuals who take seriously the social doctrine of the Catholic Church.
The crisis in Wisconsin is part of a larger national crisis that we are facing as the result of the economic crash of 2008. Much of the propaganda coming out of the media is directed at convincing us of the necessity of cutting pension funds, wages of union employees, and, ultimately, social security.
In larger terms, our position is a macro position compared to the smaller scale, but perhaps more serious, economic crisis that exists in Ireland. The Celtic Tiger experienced boom times beginning in the 1990’s, only to experience, perhaps in a harsher way, the bust of the last few years.
It is interesting to compare the crisis in Ireland with that of Wisconsin on one specific level, the commentary in the Catholic press. Some of the more significant commentary in Wisconsin acknowledged the rights of unions to exist, but at the same time, it reminded its readership that unions should not be hostile in their negotiations and that unions have a responsibility to make sacrifices for the common good. The commentary, in short, honed in on one part of the circumstances, namely, unions and their behavior.
Some of the significant Catholic commentary in Ireland took a different view, specifically in a letter that the Irish bishops wrote on the eve of the recent elections in Ireland. To begin, the Irish bishops noted that the ordinary person in Ireland was finding himself in revolutionary conditions as a result of the crash that has occurred in the past two years. They certainly admitted that many in Ireland gave themselves over to a materialist mentality over the past fifteen years, and that everyone had the obligation to examine his conscience with respect to how he has given in to the materialist mentality.
Yet the Irish bishops further noted that it would be unjust to expect the worker to make sacrifices while failing to acknowledge the much greater responsibility that bankers, politicians, and financiers had for creating the capitalist culture that led to the destruction of the Irish economy. In short, the government of Ireland should not blame the workers and make them pay the consequences for the mistakes of financiers and politicians.
The Irish bishops noted that it would be inappropriate to blame the victims, ordinary people and workers, expecting them to share an excessive burden in paying the debts that were created by the financiers responsible for the crash created by the excesses of the capitalists at the top of the Irish economy.
If we were to apply the principles that the Irish bishops used to the particulars of Wisconsin and to debates in our own land, rather than simply focusing on the behavior of unions, we would be less hesitant to use the crisis to force down the wages of workers, deprive them of their pension funds, and seek the elimination of social security.
Pension funds and social security are a form of deferred wages. Workers pay into these systems in the hopes of one day getting their wages back when they are retired and can no longer work. It is a sin that cries out to heaven for vengeance to deny the worker his wages. And so, to use an economic crisis as a pretext for driving down wages and destroying the retirements of workers is a sin that cries out to heaven for vengeance. It is, albeit in an indirect way, theft.
This crisis reminds me of the central political problem stated by Thrasymachus in Book I of the Republic. Thrasymachus argues that the unjust man knows how to hold the just man to the economic social contract in good times such that the unjust man benefits in a way that is greater than the just man. When times change, however, the unjust man knows how to break the contract so that he can benefit from the new conditions while the just man suffers the consequences.
One of the ultimate arguments of the Republic (as applied to money matters) is to say that political authority is necessary to protect the worker from economic predators who would like to break contracts and steal the wealth owed to labor in exchange for the work it has carried out. On this point, the principles of the social doctrine of the Church naturally follow from the argument of the Republic. And it also would be good to keep in mind, as we weigh what course to follow in this crisis, that it is overly simplistic to focus on the pros and cons of unions in particular without weighing the requirements of justice in a larger context.
Jeff Langan is professor of Liberal Studies at Holy Cross College in Notre Dame, Indiana. He is a faculty advisor to The Rover.