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This Labor Day finds many American
families facing a changing workplace and a shifting economy. Whether the issue
is corporate downsizing, international trade and competition, reduction or loss
of benefits, corporate relocation, part-time work, or permanent replacement of
strikers, the relationship between employees and employers seems to have
changed. These new, emerging relationships need to be measured against the
ethical demands of human dignity and family life. Similarly, inadequate
education, declining wages, the increasing necessity of two-wage households,
stubbornly high unemployment, little or no training for laid-off workers, or
dwindling low- skill job opportunities diminish the prospects for young
workers. Such limited prospects test the commitment of our economic and social
institutions in what they do to people, what they do for people, and how people
participate in them.
The Catholic bishops' Conference renews our call for new forms of partnerships and cooperation between those whose daily work is the source of our prosperity and those whose work is to manage the institutions that control our wealth. Competition alone affords too many negative consequences for family life, the poor and marginalized, and the earth's ecological system. We must strengthen the ability of everyone to participate in the economic life of our nation.
As we approach Labor Day 1994, our
thoughts turn to the changing nature and meaning of work in our society. For
more than a century work and workers have been at the center of Catholic teaching
on "the social question." From Rerum
Novarum to Centesimus Annus,
every Pope over the last 100 years has stressed the dignity of work and the
rights of workers. In our own country, our bishops have stood with working
people from Cardinal Gibbons and the Knights of Labor through the Program for Social Reconstruction in
1919 to the Economic Pastoral of 1986 and more recent statements.
Some might say that the social question has moved beyond work, that this was an issue for a simpler time. Though the context has shifted dramatically, the dignity of work and the rights of workers are still at the center of a whole series of vital and complex questions of economic and social justice facing our society. On this Labor Day, it is worth raising some of these questions from the perspective of Catholic teaching on work. These reflections deliberately offer more questions than answers, more concerns than solutions in hopes they might contribute to a broader conversation about work in our land.
In our tradition, work is far more than doing a job or making a living. It is both a duty and a right. It is an expression and reflection of the dignity we have as persons. Pope John Paul II calls work the way in which humans collaborate with the Creator in the continuing work of creation. In the pastoral letter Economic Justice for All, the U.S. bishops said, "human work has a special dignity and is a key to achieving justice in society."
In fact, our faith calls believers to bring the values of the Scriptures and the teaching of the Church into the marketplace and the world of work, acting as a leaven in economic life. The Church's work for justice is not primarily carried out by parish committees or diocesan commissions, but by men and women who live their faith in their work, families, and communities.
Further, our tradition insists we should measure economic policy especially by how it touches the poor and workers. So as we assess overall economic policy, trade policies, welfare and health care reform, our progress as a nation should be measured by how our policies enhance or undermine the dignity of the poor and workers.
Essential participants in the Catholic tradition on work are, of course,
employers. Through their investment and management of resources, their economic
progress or difficulty, their openness or resistance to workers' needs, they
provide the setting where the dignity of work is enhanced or diminished, and
where the rights of workers are respected or frustrated. In light of growing
international competition, corporate downsizing or relocation, reducing
benefits, part time workers, privatization, or permanent replacement of
strikers, the relationship between employees and employers seems to be
changing. The effect of these emerging and changing relationships needs to be
measured against the ethical demands of human dignity and family life and its
broad economic and social impact. Decisions about investment, the workforce,
and relocation have human and community costs as well as economic ones.
Several pieces of social legislation now under consideration -- health care, welfare reform, unemployment assistance -- assume the existence of some kind of "social contract" between employers and employees. The expectation is that an employee who works hard, follows the rules, and increases the productivity of the company will receive an adequate family wage, other benefits, and a job until paid retirement. The company, on the other hand, gets a skilled employee who is loyal, punctual, productive and who will use the training and skills developed on the job for the best interests of the company. Yet many observers see this social contract unraveling as ties between employer and employee come loose, with less sense of common task, less mutual loyalty and much more uncertainty and distrust. It may be time to revisit the economic pastoral and its call for new forms of partnerships and cooperation between those whose investment and management provide jobs and products and those whose daily work is the source of prosperity.
Our teaching also has consistently supported workers' rights to organize and
participate in decisions that affect their livelihood. In Centesimus Annus, Pope John Paul II strongly affirms the
"right to establish professional associations" and "the Church's
defense and approval" of trade unions. Economic
Justice for All calls for new partnerships between labor and management
that could lead to less adversarial relations. However, the letter also points
out that such partnerships are only possible when "both groups possess
real freedom and power to influence decisions." We have seen the erosion
of that balance when permanent replacements take the jobs of striking workers.
Perhaps the Dunlop Commission, established to explore ways to strengthen the
relationship between employers and employees, will provide a useful forum to
discuss these issues. It's time for unions and employers to seek the common
good instead of the single-minded pursuit of economic advantage.
Clearly our world is shrinking and our nation should welcome and face the
demands of increased international trade and commerce. But the burdens and
benefits of increasing international trade must be shared fairly. The rights of
workers here and abroad cannot be ignored or neglected in the important search
for new markets and new forms of global commerce. Our bishops conference
continues to urge that the key criterion for measuring trade agreements be
whether they will help or hurt workers here and in other countries. The human
consequences of international economic policy cannot be disregarded or
marginalized. There must be ethical as well as economic criteria for trade. The
economic pastoral pointed out: "Only a renewed commitment by all to the
common good can deal creatively with the realities of interdependence and
economic dislocations" in our economic life.
Among the critical choices to be made in the health care debate is who will pay
for health care and how much they will pay. At present, close to 90 percent of
those who have insurance obtain it through their work with employee and
employer their work with employee and employer splitting the cost. The result
of this partnership and shared responsibility is affordable health care for the
employee and a healthy and productive worker for the employer. In the debate
about who pays for health care, some suggestions ignore this experience and ask
each employee to take on the full responsibility of purchasing their own health
care coverage. This could leave many individuals and families uninsured since
they would no longer be able to afford costly health care premiums. Support for
shared responsibility for health care is found in the bishops' Program of Social Reconstruction that
called for a "levy" on industry to provide insurance against illness.
In his encyclical On Human Work, Pope John Paul II spoke about social benefits
needed to ensure the life and health of workers and their families. He said that
because of the "expenses involved" in providing health care, it
should be "easily available for workers" at low cost or even no cost.
There is a vital and developing discussion on how to "end welfare as we
know it." Most policy makers, participants in the welfare system, and
observers agree that work is often the key to welfare reform. However, their
perspectives and priorities often diverge. Some see work as a
"penalty" while others see the requirement to work as a way to simply
reduce the welfare rolls. A Catholic perspective sees it very differently.
Those who can work, should work. Work should not be a way you "pay off" welfare
assistance, rather it is the means to secure a decent life for your family. And
loving care for one's children is also an important form of work. Our Catholic
tradition includes several key principles: the right to decent work, to earn a
living wage (Ie. sufficient to support a family), and to organize and
participate in economic life. In an economy where millions are looking for work
and cannot find it, these principles demand that real welfare reform be more
than lectures about responsibility or training for jobs that don't exist.
Pope John Paul II said in Centesimus Annus:
"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 the society attain social peace (43)."
Public and private policies that
help create decent jobs at decent wages should be the first priority for
economic policy and welfare reform. Unemployment and the lack of decent jobs
destroy families and communities across our land. It disproportionately touches
African American and Hispanic workers, who are much more likely to be actively
looking for jobs and unable to find them. Full employment remains the most
fundamental economic and social objective for our Society.
Any reflection on the changing nature of work, even one as brief as this would
be remiss if it did not comment on the changing "face" of workers
that is, the number of women that are now present in the work force. Many women
work outside the home for a variety of interrelated reasons: to provide
necessary income for their families, to express their dignity, and to use their
talents for the common good. In fact, many of the issues mentioned above are
directly related to women workers. Women are disproportionately in low wage,
low benefit jobs. They are more likely to lack health care insurance, and to
head single parent households. Welfare reform and health care reform will
greatly affect the lives of poor and low income working women and their
children. In Putting Children and
Families First, the bishops acknowledge the "struggle to balance work
and family responsibilities" among working mothers. Catholic teaching
advocates for family friendly public policies that help women and men balance
work and family responsibilities, as well as social, economic and tax policies
that would make it possible for women to do the important work of raising
children and providing a home for their families if they choose to do so on a
full time basis.
In Putting Children and Families First, the bishops reiterate their call from Economic Justice for All, for proposals that would "correct the disparities in men's and women's wages," and to support legislation that would protect women from "discrimination in hiring and promotions." These concerns echo words in On Human Work where Pope John Paul II urges that women should be able to work "without being discriminated against."
In On Human Work, Pope John Paul II
says that if the solution to the social question is to "make life more
human," then human work is a key element of that solution. Since work
continues to be at the heart of today's solutions, we must recover our Catholic
teaching on work and apply it to today's social questions. Forces that seek to
deny labor its intrinsic value and workers their dignity and rights are still
present. In the search for needed reform of welfare, health care, and trade
policy, we must not sacrifice the gains that workers have made over the last
half century or ignore their consequences for vulnerable workers. The best
social welfare program is still a decent job with decent pay and benefits.
As we approach the tenth anniversary of Economic Justice for All in 1996, let us renew our search for new forms of cooperation and partnership, participation and responsibility in labor management relations. We need to constantly assess our public policies and economic decisions for their effect on family life, the poor and marginalized workers. We must recommit ourselves to the defense of human dignity, and the right of every person to share in the economic life of our nation. Let us remember most of all, those who are without decent work on this Labor Day. The first priority of a just economic life is to find a way to use the talents and energy of all those willing and able to work.
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