Labor Day Statement 1990

Year Published
  • 2012
  • English

Msgr. George Higgins, who celebrated his 50th anniversary as a priest this year, is author of the 1990 Labor Day Statement. During his thirty-six years' service at the National Catholic Welfare Conference and the U.S. Catholic Conference, Msgr. Higgins was the American bishops' primary advisor and spokesman on Catholic teaching on labor issues. During that time, he originated and continued the tradition of the bishops' annual Labor Day statement and kept alive in the U.S. what is now a 100 year old tradition of Church support for the rights of workers. The U.S.C.C. Domestic Policy Committee continues to rely on his advice and assistance, and we are pleased to publish this statement calling for action on a new agenda for labor, management, and society.
—Bishop James W. Malone, Bishop of Youngstown
Chair, U.S.C.C. Committee on Domestic Social Policy

On the New Condition of Labor

Monsignor George G. Higgins
September 3, 1990

1991 will mark the 100th anniversary of Pope Leo XIII's encyclical Rerum Novarum ("On the Condition of Labor"), the first in a long and continuing series of important papal documents on socio-economic problems. Written at the height of the Industrial Revolution, Leo's pioneering encyclical came to be known as "Labor's Magna Carta." Its most direct and lasting effect in the U.S. was the impetus it gave to unionization. As one historian put it, "Although a few American Bishops like Cardinal Gibbons and Archbishop Ireland had already given their blessing to unionization and Catholics were already active in union leadership, the encyclical opened the doors for a much more massive and intensive collaboration between Catholics and the labor movement."

Unfortunately, the labor movement in the U.S. has been on the decline, numerically, in recent years. Many labor-management experts believe that the movement is in a state of serious crisis and that its future is, at best, problematical. A few have even suggested that the crisis may be terminal.

In the light of Catholic social teaching and such predictions, it is appropriate on Labor Day to reaffirm support of labor's right to organize and to reemphasize the need for a strong and effective labor movement.

But why? Who really cares? What difference would it make if unions were to disappear from the scene?

The late Monsignor John A. Ryan, first director of the Social Action Department of the National Catholic Welfare Conference, answered this question as follows at the height of the Great Depression: "Effective labor unions are still by far the most powerful force in society for the protection of the laborer's rights and the improvement of his or her condition. No amount of employer benevolence, no diffusion of a sympathetic attitude on the part of the public, no increase of beneficial legislation, can adequately supply for the lack of organization among the workers themselves." Dr. Ryan's argument is still valid.

Former Secretary of Labor Ray Marshall, a distinguished labor economist in his own right, expanded on Ryan's argument by emphasizing that strong and effective labor unions are necessary not only to protect workers' rights but, just as importantly, to safeguard political democracy. In Marshall's view, "We should be particularly concerned about the weakening of labor organizations since the sixties, because we are not likely to have a free and democratic society without a free and democratic labor movement. Trying to have economic democracy without unions is like trying to have political democracy without political parties."

Secretary Marshall's observations parallel those of Pope John Paul II who argued in his 1981 encyclical On Human Work, that unions in today's world are "indispensable" -- an argument that was elaborated upon in the American context by the U.S. 1986 Pastoral Letter on Catholic Social Teaching and the U.S. Economy.

While many observers of organized labor in the U.S. differ in their diagnoses and prescriptions, they almost unanimously agree that widespread employer opposition -- which frequently violates the spirit and all too often even the letter of the law -- is a major cause of labor's decline. The Bishops' Pastoral also voices this opinion: "The Church fully supports the right of workers to form secure their rights to fair wages and working conditions...No one may deny the right to organize without attacking human dignity itself. Therefore, we firmly oppose organized efforts, such as those regrettably now seen in this country, to break existing unions and prevent workers from organizing."

In stressing the need for strong and effective labor unions and opposing efforts to thwart labor's right to organize, the Pastoral is not suggesting that unions in the U.S. are above criticism. Moreover, the Pastoral is not siding against management, much less pitting labor against management. To the contrary, it explicitly states that workers have obligations to their employers and that trade unions and their management counterparts jointly "have duties to society as a whole." The Pastoral, calling for "an imaginative vision of the future that can help shape economic arrangements in critical new ways," strongly emphasizes the representative and coordinating role of organized labor and management, jointly assisted by the government, in developing new forms of bona fide partnership for the public good.

This representative and coordinating function takes on new and important meaning in the current economic environment, when American industry and labor are struggling with the lagging competitiveness of our industries -- particularly our traditional manufacturing base -- and are formulating strategies for surviving in an increasingly complex world economy. Our responsibility and challenge is how to accomplish this task without sacrificing our hard won human gains in the workplace: equal employment opportunity, safe and decent working conditions, adequate wages, security in both employment and retirement, and the opportunity to improve one's standard of living.

Meeting the challenge will require new and creative forms of labor-management cooperation as called for in the Bishops' Pastoral. The Pastoral emphasizes, however, that "Partnerships between labor and management are possible only when both groups possess real freedom and power to influence decisions. This means that unions ought to continue to play an important role in moving toward greater economic participation within firms and industries. Workers rightly reject calls for less adversarial relations when they are a smokescreen for demands that labor make all the concessions. For partnership to be genuine it must be a two-way street, `with creative initiative and willingness to cooperate on all sides."

Such partnerships will require unions as well as management to develop a new vision of their role in the U.S. economy. As the Pastoral points out, "The labor movement in the United States stands at a crucial moment." The dynamic growth of the unions earlier in this century has been replaced by a decrease in the percentage of U.S. workers who are organized. American workers are under heavy pressure today with threats to their jobs from automation and competition from countries in which unions are heavily restricted. In these circumstances, guaranteeing the rights of U.S. workers calls for an imaginative vision and creative new steps, not reactive or simply defensive strategies.

Government, too, has an indispensable role to play in helping labor and management jointly serve the public good in and through new forms of bona fide cooperation. First, a new look at our aging federal labor laws is long overdue. Labor law reform of the modest type that was narrowly defeated in the U.S. Senate in the 1970s is still badly needed, and other changes must be made for effective labor-management cooperation to come about. Specifically, there is a need to explore conflicts between federal labor law and various experimental forms of worker participation in management. The U.S. Department of Labor has completed a two-year study to explore this complex problem. "For the past 50 years," the director of the study has pointed out, "the law has assumed that labor and management are adversarial opponents and must have an arm's length relationship. If we are going to be competitive in the global economy we may have to blur distinctions between labor and management."

The Labor Department study could point the way to a solution, but the key will be getting labor and management to put aside their political hostilities and support the study's recommendations.

Equally important, the nation's federal labor laws should be updated to outlaw the permanent replacement of workers involved in a legitimate strike. When replacement workers are temporary, strikers retain their right to return to their jobs after a settlement is reached. When replacements are permanent, they represent a major stumbling block to settlements. When the issues are settled, agreeing upon what to do with two sets of workers -- strikers and strikebreakers -- is usually more difficult than settling the strike in the first place. Employers know the consequences of hiring permanent replacements. Many who do so are not motivated solely by the need to keep their factories operating, but by a desire to get rid of the union and collective bargaining, along with their union work force. As long as employers can hire permanent replacement workers, the right to strike will be merely a right to quit.

In the meantime, the religious community is facing the wrehching consequences of this practice. Where striking workers are permanently replaced, communities and families have been divided, with strikers and strikebreakers sometimes in the same family or living on the same street. The right to strike without fear of reprisal is fundamental in our democratic society. Employers who exploit outmoded court decisions to replace legitimate strikers represent a serious threat to our social fabric.

The labor movement, in alliance with a variety of religious, civil rights, and community organizations, has begun a major campaign to recapture the right of workers to withhold their labor without penalty. To this end, bills have been introduced in the Congress to guarantee the free exercise of the right to strike. Such proposals deserve the support of Church-related organizations.

We are dealing here, not with purely technical innovations in labor-management-government relations, but with ethical and profoundly human problems of great significance for the future of our society. The 100th anniversary of Rerum Novarum presents an excellent opportunity for American Catholics to recall their Church's long tradition of support for the right of workers to organize and to rededicate themselves to ensuring that the rights of workers -- including the right to strike -- are guaranteed in this nation.

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