Labor Day Statement 1987

Year Published
  • 2012
  • English

Rights and Responsibilities of Workers

Most Rev. Joseph M. Sullivan
Chairman, Committee on Social Development and World Peace
United States Catholic Conference
September 7, 1987

Labor Day, 1987, comes at an important and challenging moment for American workers and the unions that represent them. The recent pastoral letter of the American Catholic bishops, Economic Justice for All, says that "perhaps the greatest challenge facing American workers and unions is that of developing a new vision of their role in the United States economy of the future."

Our economy is experiencing vast structural changes, as seen in the shift to a service economy, the rising levels of imports into U. S. markets, the persistent high levels of unemployment, and a changing labor market with increasing numbers of women workers. Many new jobs pay substantially less than those in the industries that are being destroyed, and part-time jobs are growing at nearly twice the rate of full-time employment. Meanwhile, government policies have failed to provide adequate support and assistance for the unemployed, the under-employed, and displaced workers. These policies, along with federal cutbacks in social welfare spending, changes in tax law, and policies detrimental to the poor, have contributed to the growing gap between the rich and the poor.

The effect of these changes on the American people, on families, and on society as a whole, has been serious and disruptive. The economic loss and the general sense of economic insecurity experienced by many workers is a severe threat to their dignity and future well-being.

Nevertheless, the heritage that we celebrate on this Labor Day moves us to take hope, even in difficult times. We remember those who worked to make this country great, those who have invested talent and resources, those who have organized and struggled for the rights and dignity of working people.

The Church has a long history of participating in the struggle for workers' rights and economic justice. During the decades after the teachings of Pope Leo XIII in Rerum Novarum (1891) the Church was particularly close to workers' struggles to obtain their rights. For example, in the early part of this century labor priests were found in virtually every major industrial city.

In the post-war years, the Church-Labor relationship changed, as organized labor became more firmly established and as increasing numbers of Catholics moved into the middle class. There was a gradual tapering off of direct involvement by Catholic social activists in the field of labor-management relations, as other social issues confronting society took the time and talent of Church leaders.

It is important that we remember and build on the past history of Church-Labor relationships. Much has changed in recent years, but the basic challenge of defending human dignity remains a common task of both Church and labor.

Moreover, I believe there are several reasons to suggest that we should renew and strengthen this partnership in the years ahead. First, as I noted at the start, the present-day economy poses new and difficult challenges for those seeking to preserve the rights of workers. Meeting these challenges will require a renewed partnership. Secondly, I believe that Catholic social teaching has a very real contribution to make in providing a moral vision and a foundation of ethical principles upon which to build the struggle for economic justice.

Church Teaching on Labor

Labor Day is an appropriate occasion to reexamine some of the basic values and insights from our Catholic teaching on work and economic justice. Pope John Paul II's encyclical On Human Work gives us a clear starting point by focusing on the dignity of the human person. As the Holy Father declares, work is for people; people are not for work.

In the Catholic tradition, work is a vocation, a calling by God to participate in His creation. Through work all people are invited to use their abilities to transform the materials of earth for the use and enjoyment of the human community. Work not only enables people to contribute to the common good of the community, but it allows for the exercise of the distinctly human traits of self-realization and self-expression. Because work is so important, the Church has long held it to be a basic human right.

Workers' Rights

Concern for the dignity of workers has led the Church to promote and defend a more specific set of workers' rights. In Rerum Novarum Pope Leo XIII taught that a worker has a right to a living wage, one determined by his or her responsibilities as a person, not just the lowest price for work on an open market. Later, this understanding of the living wage was expanded to include provisions enabling a breadwinner to provide adequately for his or her family.

In our pastoral letter, Economic Justice for All, we recalled this teaching of Pope Leo XIII and we summarized more recent Catholic teaching on the rights of workers. Because people have a right to employment, it follows that both the wages and benefits of that employment must be sufficient to provide for life with dignity. This requires that workers be assured safe working conditions and security against capricious dismissal. Workers also have a right to adequate health care, security for old age or disability, and unemployment compensation.

To secure workers' rights to fair wages and working conditions, the Church also supports the right of workers to form unions or other associations. In the words of Pope John Paul II, "The Experience of history teaches that organizations of this type are an indispensable element of social life, especially in modern industrialized societies." (On Human Work, 19).

Our pastoral letter reaffirms this position by stating that "No one may deny the right to organize without attacking human dignity itself. Therefore, we firmly oppose organized efforts, such as those regrettably seen in this country, to break existing unions or prevent workers from organizing." (104)

Workers Responsibilities

In addition to the rights of workers and labor unions, Catholic social teaching also addresses some of the important responsibilities of workers. These responsibilities begin with the duty to use one's talents effectively, to provide a fair day's work, and to seek excellence in production and service. Fulfilling this responsibility benefits not only the worker and his or her immediate employer, but also the broader society.

In speaking about labor unions, Pope John Paul II has repeatedly stressed the themes of the common good and solidarity. He urges unions to use their power not only for their own self-interest but also for the good of the whole society, especially those who are weakest and who are left out. His words encourage unions not to forget those who are unorganized or unemployed. Indeed, as he has said to union members, "support of those who are weakest will be proof of the authenticity of your solidarity."

One of the most eloquent and forceful examples of Pope John Paul II's support for workers rights, solidarity, and social justice came in a speech he gave earlier this year to labor union members in Buenos Aires, Argentina. I take this occasion to cite his words at some length because they contain a powerful message for workers and unions. The Pope's first plea is for greater solidarity among workers:

The great objective of the labor union should be the development of (people), of all working (people); therefore 'movements of solidarity in the sphere of work' are always necessary ("Laborem Exercens," 8). The Pope would like to urge you to take a further step toward solidarity. ...The tendency to remain anonymous in human relations must be overcome; a positive effort must be made to convert 'solitude' into 'solidarity'... .

The Holy Father then goes on to urge workers and unions to be a voice for justice in all of society.

The service that your strength of association can offer to man -- and with him, the community -- requires a serious commitment on the part of each of you to say "enough" to anything in clear violation of the dignity of the worker.

"Enough" to situations in which the rights of workers are irremediably subordinated to economic systems that seek only maximum benefits without regard for the moral quality of the methods they use to obtain them.

"Enough" to subjecting the right to work to transitory economic or financial circumstances which do not take into account the fact that full employment of the labor force should be the first priority of any social organization.

"Enough" to making products that represent a danger to peace and seriously offend public morality as well as the health of certain sectors of the population.

"Enough" also to the unequal distribution of food throughout the world; to the lack of a systematic recognition of the right to form labor unions in more than a few countries in the world.

Today's Challenge

In recalling papal teaching on the dignity of work and the rights and responsibilities of workers I do not seek simply to make a theoretical or historical point. Rather, I believe we must seek to discover the meaning of this living tradition in our own time and place. It is a tradition that requires us to test the quality of justice among us and to seek creative solutions to the changing realities of our time.

The challenge we face is to use the values of our tradition to help shape the economic transition that is occurring. These must be used to help minimize the human and social costs, and to fashion new economic policies that enhance human dignity and are sensitive to and supportive of the integrity of the family.

As we under take this task, let us demonstrate a commitment to what our pastoral letter describes as "A New American Experiment: Partnership for the Common Good." This will mean developing and nurturing new forms of cooperation and partnership among the major actors in the economy. It will mean business, labor, and government joining together to deal with such concerns as the shift from manufacturing to service industries and technologies. It will mean joining together in sponsoring programs to provide training and job opportunities for groups such as welfare recipients and minority youth who have little prospect of entering the mainstream job market unless they receive special help.

On this Labor Day, as we stop to reflect on the economic issues that con-front us and the basic values that guide us, I think there is solid reason for hope. As a nation we have a rich tradition of values and a long history of struggle on behalf of economic justice. I believe these basic values and this sense of struggle for justice are alive and well in America. Despite the magnitude and complexity of the problems we face, despite the signs of complacency and even greed among some parts of the population, there are also signs of renewed commitment to the basic values of justice and human decency. Among the labor movement there is clear evidence of a willingness to adapt to the changing signs of the times and to pursue the joint struggle for workers' rights and the common good. And among the business community there are numerous leaders who are willing and committed to join in working for an economy that is prosperous but also just, an economy that rewards individual initiative but also promotes the common good, an economy that serves not only short-term interests but also the long-term welfare of our society.

I hope and trust that as a nation we can build on the good will, the innate desire for justice and the creative competence that is part of the American tradition. These values remain strong in our nation. They are among our most important resources in the continuing struggle to achieve economic justice for all.
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