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"The obligation to earn one's bread by the sweat of one's brow also
presumes the right to do so. A society in which this right is
systematically denied, in which economic policies do not allow workers
to reach satisfactory levels of employment, cannot be justified from an
ethical point of view, nor can that society attain social peace."
-- Pope John Paul II, Centesimus Annus
The U.S. Catholic bishops continually urge the President and the
Congress to enact legislation to protect human life and dignity and
fundamental human rights. On this Labor Day, I want to reflect on three
issues to illustrate the Church's commitment to a just society in which
individual rights are respected within an overall context of protecting
the common good.
The three issues of special interest as we celebrate our labor tradition are family and medical leave, the right to strike, and help for the unemployed.
What the three issues have in common is the Church's understanding of work as both human right and human responsibility and the role of society and government in safeguarding their exercise. In our Catholic teaching all of us, acting through our social institutions and government, are obliged to protect these rights. Moreover, we must ensure that the exercise of one human right or responsibility does not have to paid for by the sacrifice of another. As the Pope explains in the new encyclical, a market economy brings significant strengths, but it needs to operate within "a juridical framework" of laws and regulation to guard and preserve human rights and the common good, which cannot be assured by market forces alone.
Human rights and dignity here in the U.S., as elsewhere in the world, cannot be secured in the absence of such a legal framework. The Church has pointed this out clearly in its efforts to give unborn children the protection of the law and to ensure that high quality prenatal care is available to their mothers. Just as we are working to protect the lives and health of babies both before and after birth, we are working also to secure the fundamental human rights of working people.
For seven years the bishops have supported legislation to protect
working men and women who need time off to handle family crises or to
recover from a serious illness. The Family and Medical Leave Act, now
pending again in Congress after suffering a Presidential veto last year,
would guard most Americans against losing their jobs when they are
needed at home to welcome a new baby, to comfort a dying parent, or to
nurse a recuperating spouse. They'd also rest easier knowing that their
jobs would be waiting for them when they recovered from a heart attack
or surgery. While many employers do the right thing, even without legal
requirements, many others do not. All Americans have a stake in creating
a society where family values are more than just political rhetoric.
The bishops endorse legislation to protect workers who exercise
their legal right to strike over wages and benefits. For a hundred years
it has been a basic tenet of Catholic teaching that working people have
a right to organize, join labor unions, and bargain collectively. Our
teaching also recognizes that the right to strike without fear of
reprisal is fundamental to the right to collective bargaining. That
principle has been firmly entrenched in U.S. labor law which forbids the
firing of strikers. Unfortunately, some employers have unfairly taken
advantage of a loophole in the law that allows them to hire "permanent
replacements" for their striking workers. It's hard to see the
difference between being fired and being "permanently replaced."
Communities are often the big losers, as the two sets of workers are
pitted against each other in an atmosphere of tension and betrayal.
Outlawing the permanent replacement of striking workers is a matter of basic human rights, and all of us have a stake in this issue. It's clear around the world that, without a strong, independent union movement, no workers--union or non-union--can expect their rights to be respected. That is as true today in the U.S., as it was a century ago in Western Europe when Pope Leo XIII proclaimed the rights of workers in Rerum Novarum, and as it was a decade ago in Poland when Solidarity led the way to the overthrow of the communist regime.
We bishops also call on the President and the Congress to reform
the unemployment insurance system to help Americans who are still
looking for work after losing their jobs in the recession.
Young workers, with relatively little work experience, are finding it very hard to get rehired. Many are just starting to raise families, and few have a financial nest-egg to survive prolonged unemployment. To see these young families forced to accept charity and welfare when their unemployment insurance runs out is heartrending. Knowing that neither is enough to protect children from serious deprivation should make us all ashamed.
The other group shouldering a heavy burden is older workers, many of whom spent years getting back on their feet after the recessions of the 80's, and who now too young to retire but are "overqualified" for available jobs. When their unemployment benefits expire they are often ineligible for any other help and may have to exhaust their savings and sell their homes just to survive.
Why should these families lose everything while waiting for the recession to end? Shouldn't government policy keep them afloat until they and the economy are back on an even keel? In looking at the recession, perhaps policymakers have focused too much attention on the official unemployment statistics and other economic indicators and not enough on real people who are all too clearly suffering. Obviously, new jobs are the best answer, but, in the meantime, we owe these people some measure of compassion and justice.
On this Labor Day I ask you to reflect on the Pope's words that "the social message of the Gospel must not be considered a theory, but above all else a basis and motivation for action." He urges us to "make the necessary corrections" in our economic system and to recognize that love for others and, especially for the poor, in whom the Church sees Christ himself, is made concrete in the promotion of justice. In a more just society people would not have to sacrifice their jobs to exercise fundamental rights and responsibilities--such as caring for the young, the old and the sick--or find themselves out of luck when illness or the business cycle leaves them out of work. Working to pass these vital reforms is an excellent way to mark the 100th anniversary of Rerum Novarum, the encyclical that helped build bridges between the Church and working people that endure today. This Labor Day let us commit ourselves to acting on the Church's teaching on work and workers.
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