Labor Day Statement 1994

Year Published
  • 2012
  • English

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.

Work: Still at the Center of the Social Question

Bishop John H. Ricard S.S.J., Auxiliary Bishop of Baltimore
Chair, Committee on Domestic Policy
United States Catholic Conference
September 5, 1994

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.

Employers and Employees

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.

Workers and Unions

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.

Trade and Workers

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.

Workers and Health Care

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.

Work and Welfare

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.

Women and Work

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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