Mentioning the campaign against unions by a Republican governor in 2011 in the same breath as the anti-labor repression by Communist authorities in Poland in 1980 is sure to raise eyebrows. Yet as Mark Twain supposedly said, if history doesn't repeat itself, it sometimes rhymes.
And there are some striking similarities between that Communist-era episode and the ongoing standoff between Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker and the state's public employees. They were not lost on the current president of the Solidarity trade union in Poland, who sent a letter
of support for public workers on behalf of the union's 700,000 members.
"We are witnessing yet another attempt of transferring the costs of the economic crisis and of the failed financial policies to working people and their families," wrote Piotr Duda, president of Solidarnosc, the Polish word for Solidarity. "Your victory is our victory as well."
Indeed, both in Communist Poland and in Wisconsin today, the target was unions and their collective bargaining rights. And in both cases, we see the Roman Catholic Church supporting organized labor.
Led by the gutsy electrician Lech Walesa, workers of the Solidarity trade union movement went on strike in August 1980 to regain their freedom and their rights. Over 18 days, they negotiated with Communist party officials, who were actually more willing to make concessions than Walker has been to this point.
The governor is obviously not a Communist. His pro-business credentials are undeniable, as evidenced by his cozy relationship with the billionaire Koch brothers
and his corporate tax cuts (which are arguably a cause of Wisconsin's fiscal crisis). Yet, he sure is acting like the Polish Communists in one real way: they, too, staunchly opposed free trade unions and collective bargaining.
Walesa and other Solidarity leaders did not relent. They insisted that free trade unions and the right to collective bargaining were absolutely essential to guaranteeing freedom in Poland. Yes, they wanted wages that would feed their families. Yes, they wanted to work in safe conditions. But above all they wanted a voice in assuring the dignity of work. "Everything else would follow," argued Walesa.
According to Timothy Garton Ash's eyewitness account in "The Polish Revolution," when it was all over Walesa told the throngs of workers "we now have the most important thing: Our Independent Self-Governing Trades Unions. That is our guarantee for the future." The workers in Wisconsin are on the same page: they are willing to concede economic benefits, but they will not budge on their right to collective bargaining.
In its steadfast demands, Solidarity had a strong and venerable ally: the Catholic Church. Labor rights had been a pillar of Catholic social teaching since the 19th century, and Cardinal Karol Wojtyla of Krakow and the Primate of Poland, Cardinal Stefan Wyszynski, had for decades proclaimed the church's support for a broad human rights agenda, including the rights of workers.
Wojtyla was elected Pope John Paul II in 1978, two years before Walesa led the Gdansk strike, and the pontiff's 1981 encyclical on human labor, "Laborem Exercens"
-- published while Poland's internal struggle was growing -- buoyed Solidarity's case for independent unions. In the pontiff's words, workers have the "right ... to form associations for the purpose of defending the vital interests of those employed in various professions."
Moreover, the pontiff declared unions are a "mouthpiece for the struggle for social justice, for the just rights of working people." The Polish government wanted to keep this mouthpiece silent. Likewise, Walker is attempting to squelch the voice of workers by eviscerating unions' primary purpose: negotiation of wages and benefits. He also wants to break their backs by forcing unions to hold annual recertification votes and to collect membership dues outside of payroll deductions.
Just as the church leaders stood up for Solidarity, Archbishop Jerome Listecki of Milwaukee has raised his voice. In a recent statement
, he quoted Pope Benedict XVI, who has argued
that unions are more necessary than ever in the global economy, especially given the tendency of governments to limit the "negotiating capacity" of workers in the name of "economic utility."
Listecki also cited John Paul II's positive appraisal of the role that unions play in promoting social justice and the common good. The archbishop exhorted his fellow citizens to realize that "hard times do not nullify the moral obligation each of us has to respect the legitimate rights of workers" and that it is wrong to "marginalize or dismiss unions as impediments to economic growth."
He echoed what the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops wrote long ago, namely that economic decisions must not take place over the heads of workers whose livelihoods depend on them. On Thursday, the point man on social justice issues for the American hierarchy, Bishop Stephen Blaire of Stockton, also reiterated that point in a letter to Listecki
expressing "support for and solidarity" with the statement of the Wisconsin bishops.
"Catholic teaching and your statement remind us these are not just political conflicts or economic choices; they are moral choices with enormous human dimensions," Bishop Blaire wrote. "The debates over worker representation and collective bargaining are not simply matters of ideology or power, but involve principles of justice, participation and how workers can have a voice in the workplace and economy."
Such words could have easily come from the Polish bishops, who unequivocally supported Solidarity's bid for workers' rights.
Moreover, diverse faith traditions share this insistence on the rights and dignity of workers. That was evidenced by the support for workers coming from Jewish leaders
and the decision by religious leaders in Wisconsin and Illinois to offer their houses of worship as sanctuaries
for Democratic state senators who walked out of the legislature last week to block a vote on Walker's proposal to roll back collective bargaining rights for public employees.
The Wisconsin governor is acting against the best impulses of democracy. The right to participate in discussions about wages and benefits is vital for a truly democratic and free-market system. As Pope John Paul II stated, a democracy that fosters the common good, "requires the effective exercise, even in the economic sphere, of the right of all people to share in the decisions which affect them." A "free economy" needs legal structures and institutions such as unions to ensure "equality between the parties" so that "one party would not be so powerful as practically to reduce the other to subservience."
The right to unions and collective bargaining is also necessary for human freedom. As both the Solidarity movement and Catholic social teaching have attested, freedom is fulfilled by participating in the construction of a just society. Unions safeguard workers' ability to function in this capacity.
Perhaps progressives and the tea party could find agreement in opposition to the fact that Gov. Walker would give government more coercive power and encroach on workers' ability to freely sell services in the marketplace. Union demands are not always justifiable, and sometimes workers must sacrifice a portion of their own livelihoods for the sake of the common good. But taking away their freedom is never acceptable. It is unethical, undemocratic, and un-American.
I'm certain the Polish freedom fighters who threw off the yoke of Communism would agree. Their motto was "no freedom without solidarity."
In spite of the dangerous precedent set by Gov. Walker's obstinacy -- other states are weighing similar anti-union legislation -- we can take heart in the solidarity between Wisconsin workers, student protesters and religious leaders – another parallel between Poland in 1980 and now. Perhaps like the Communist party officials in Poland, Walker may be unwittingly galvanizing an unstoppable alliance. A recent poll revealed that a clear majority of Americans oppose his attack on unions. When the dust clears, we may be indebted to him for our own era of solidarity.
Gerald J. Beyer is author of "Recovering Solidarity: Lessons From Poland's Unfinished Revolution" (Notre Dame, Ind.: University of Notre Dame Press, 2010). He is associate professor of Christian social ethics at Saint Joseph's University in Philadelphia.