From the editors of The Christian Century:
Labor unions, wrote Pope John Paul II in his encyclical Laborem Exercens, are "an indispensable element in social life . . . indeed a mouthpiece for the struggle for social justice." Having seen how Poland's workers fared under capitalism and communism, John Paul knew firsthand that neither the market nor the state can be counted on to automatically deliver justice for workers.
Labor unions in the U.S. played a huge role in improving workers' salaries, benefits and working conditions and thereby in helping to build a strong middle class. Since the 1940s, however, unions have fallen on hard times. In the face of global economic competition and increased corporate resistance to unions (and some laws that support that resistance), the number of unionized workers in the private sector has fallen from 33 percent to 7 percent.
The current economic crisis has prompted state officials in Wisconsin, Ohio and elsewhere to try to further undermine the power of unions in the one arena in which they remain relatively strong—among public employees. In Wisconsin, for example, Governor Scott Walker, citing the state's budget problems, has pressed for passage of a bill that would not only require state workers to contribute more toward their pensions and heath care but would strip them of the right to negotiate benefits and working conditions. The unions have accepted the need for increased contributions but have defied the effort to take away the right to collective bargaining, since to allow that step would be to accept the dismantling of the unions.
Whatever one thinks about public employee unions, it's inaccurate to blame them for the fiscal crisis in the states and misguided to use the crisis as the occasion to dismantle them. Budget woes are afflicting states that don't deal with public employee unions as well as those that do. And it was not public unions that caused the wild speculation on housing prices, the Wall Street meltdown, the recession, the double-digit unemployment and the subsequent drop in tax revenues.