Labor Day Statement 1989

Year Published
  • 2012
  • English

Freedom, Justice and the Role of Unions

Most Reverend Joseph M. Sullivan
Chairman, Committee on Domestic Policy
United States Catholic Conference
September 4, 1989

Events leading up to Labor Day 1989 demonstrate the vital role that both the Church and the labor movement are called upon to play in the common task of defending work and human dignity.

Labor Unions and Democracy

All men and women of good will are heartened by the successful struggle of Poland's workers, whose free, democratic trade union, Solidarnosc, has become the instrument of progress and, we hope, liberation for an entire society emerging from entrenched totalitarian rule.

Working people in Hungary, in China, in South Africa and in Siberia and the Ukraine are asserting the same social values of human dignity, freedom and human solidarity. They have our support and our prayers as they work, with hope and courage, to create the democratic trade unions which Pope John Paul II calls" an indispensable element of social life, especially in industrialized societies."1

In our Catholic tradition labor unions are viewed not only as an effective vehicle for the economic well-being of their members, but also as structures that can foster the human development and dignity of workers and that contribute to the common good. Government leaders and ordinary Americans can now see how trade unions in Eastern Europe, Africa and Asia unite and uplift the aspirations for freedom and solidarity of oppressed peoples.

Labor Unions and Economic Justice

In the United States, ironically, workers are measurably worse off than they were ten years ago. Structural changes in the economy, increased reliance on imports, union-breaking efforts and a growing shift to lower-paid, part-time employment have left millions of Americans without the protection of unions. For many, this has meant lower living standards, no health benefits and less security for their families.

These changes have been accompanied by unprecedented gaps in income and assets between high- and low-income Americans. As the Holy Father pointed out in his recent encyclical, On Social Concerns (Sollicitudo Rei Socialis), such extreme gaps are a threat to all of us. The poor are deprived of basic necessities and of the hope of realizing their full humanity and dignity. The very affluent become slaves of possessions, caught up in the "cult of having" and lose sight of their true vocations and responsibilities. As the Pope has repeatedly insisted, one of the worst injustices in the contemporary world is the unequal distribution of the goods and services intended by God for all.2

All of our society suffers from this disproportionate distribution of power and wealth. Social solidarity and the bonds of community are weakened when the spirit of individualism triumphs over communitarian values. When the pain of economic dislocation and the rewards of economic recovery are not shared fairly, as they have not been in the past ten years, social and political ties can be frayed or shattered, as we have seen in so many other countries.

A strong trade union movement, with widespread collective bargaining, can strengthen all of society. A recent U.S. government report showed that union workers earn $2.00 more an hour in wages and $3.00 more in benefits than unorganized workers.3 Because of their higher pay and better security, they are less likely to need government-provided welfare or health benefits. Union workers are also more likely to have a voice in workplace decisions and local affairs. Strong democratic unions can be the training grounds for community leaders. That is one reason unions have been resisted by totalitarian regimes and why they should be fostered in democratic societies.

We all need to examine the ethical and human dimensions of policies and practices that have encouraged a plague of "greenmail" raids, hostile takeovers and leveraged buyouts that are loading American corporations with unmanageable debt at the expense of jobs, dividends and productivity. We need to ex-amine how government policies encourage or discourage employers from campaigns to dismantle established unions, unilaterally rescind health and retirement benefits or restructure so as to block organizing efforts.

Labor Unions and Catholic Teaching

For nearly a hundred years Catholic social teaching has supported the rights of workers to organize and to bargain collectively. A long history of papal encyclicals and American bishops' statements has upheld the right to form trade unions as necessary and desirable to defend the vital interests of workers and to lead in the struggle for social justice. It is the God-given dignity of workers that gives them the right to make that choice freely, without interference or intimidation from management or labor representatives.

Our pastoral letter, Economic Justice for All, reaffirms the Church's support of the rights of workers to form unions and to work for fairness in the workplace: "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." In many parts of the country, Catholic priests, religious and lay people are working in solidarity with their neighbors' struggles to retain union representation and long-negotiated benefits. In many cases the economic and social life of whole communities depends on the success of those efforts.

Workers and union members, like all men and women, have a responsibility to use their talents effectively, to provide a fair day's work, to bargain fairly and to seek excellence. They have a duty to use their unions not only for their own self-interest, but also for the good of the whole society. This flows from the fact that work is a vocation, a calling by God to participate in his creation and to express their own humanity. Since unions can only fulfill their important functions for their members and for society when there is full participation, it is important for workers to take their social obligations seriously and to use well their opportunity for union membership. Unions must also ensure that the benefits of union membership are avail-able to all, including those most in need of union protection, especially women, minorities, immigrants and disabled people.

The value of democratic labor unions to a free society must be recognized at home as well as abroad. Through unions, workers can not only have more, they can be more. 


  1. John Paul II, On Human Work, 1981, no. 95.
  2. John Paul II, On Social Concerns (Sollicitudo Rei Socialis), 1988, no. 28.
  3. Bureau of Labor Statistics, U.S. Department of Labor. Employer Costs for Employee Compensation, March 1989.
  4. National Conference of Catholic Bishops, Economic Justice for All: Pastoral Letter on Catholic Social Teaching and the U.S. Economy, 1986, no. 104.
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