A reflection on Langan’s “The crisis in Wisconsin and the wisdom of Irish bishops”

In the face of widespread denigration of public service unions and their members, it was good to have Professor Langan remind us of the Catholic Church’s strong support for the rights of unions and employees. These are, after all, the people who teach our children and protect us and provide our essential public services. More, if their compensation be thought too high in some circumstances, the fault lies with the officeholders who agreed to provide it.

However, as to the somewhat muted Church commentary that Professor Langan discusses, it may be relevant that the Church’s teaching was developed in the context of private employers and their employees, not governments and their employees.

There are at least two unique aspects of public service employment:

First, “take aways” or “give backs” from public service employees do not enrich stockholders or executives but rather benefit taxpayers and other aspects of public enterprise, e.g., infrastructure such as roads and sewers and schools. It is not, then, a matter of an equitable division of the profits of a pooling of capital and labor.  (For comparison, see the seminal encyclical Rerum Novarum: “Rights and Duties of Capital and Labor.”)

The long-time general test for public service employees has been comparability between public and private positions: compensation high enough to attract qualified employees but not so high as to be unfair to taxpayers or in respect to other public needs. One cannot, of course, expect Church spokespersons to speak to a subject like this in particular disputes absent extraordinary circumstances.

But the most heated disputes appear to be over collective bargaining rights rather than wages and benefits. Indeed, the Wisconsin unions early declared they would accede to Governor Walker on compensation.

Herein lies the second, and perhaps most acute, difference between public and private employment: The public representatives negotiating with the unions often have a crippling conflict of interest. As elected employees, they may either have been supported or opposed by the unions.

I write with some experience. As the former chief labor negotiator representing the nation’s major railroads, I would have found my position intolerable had I owed it in some measure to my union counterparts.

I add that my experience has also made me a strong supporter of the right of employees to form unions and an admirer of responsible unions. There were no strikes during my tenure. I liked and respected my union counterparts, not one of whom ever broke his word, and I understand the sometimes necessary check on unfairness by management provided by the right of employees to organize.

What is necessary is a labor relations structure that takes account of these differences between the public and private sectors together with reflection on what they may mean with respect to traditional Church teaching.

I add that Governor Walker did not make any of this easier by rejecting not only arbitration in the future but even discussion, and neither did the unions with some of their tactics. But this should not deter others, hopefully some at Notre Dame, from an informed and balanced consideration of these important policy and ethical issues.

William Dempsey is president of Sycamore Trust, an organization established by alumni and dedicated to the preservation of the Catholic identity of the university. Contact him at whdempsey@earthlink.net