Labor Day Statement 1997

Year Published
  • 2012
  • English

Economic Progress: Looking Beyond the Numbers

Most Reverend William S. Skylstad
Chair, Committee on Domestic Policy
United States Catholic Conference
September 1, 1997

Growing Together, Growing Apart

This Labor Day, many people in the United States are experiencing a time of economic stability, growth, and confidence. Unemployment rates are the lowest in decades; families are leaving public assistance to participate in the job market; businesses are growing and reaping profits; and the stock market is setting new records. There are even major steps towards finally balancing the federal budget.

But there is uneasiness in the land. While more people have work, many workers feel insecure about their future. As welfare recipients try to join the workforce, some find no jobs, while others struggle to raise their families with very low wages. Some business leaders are creating jobs, other corporations seek mergers, downsize workforces, and uproot local companies without apparent concern for the immediate community. A recent strike focused on the growth of part time jobs in the economy. The stock market reacts almost perversely to economic news. In some cases, stocks climb on reports of increased unemployment or a huge layoff of employees. And few in the federal government are talking about reducing the size of the accumulated debt that annually extracts nearly $300 billion in interest payments from the federal coffers. But, perhaps most disturbing of all is the widening gap between the rich and the poor in our land.

Alan Greenspan, Chairman of the Federal Reserve Board, in recent testimony before Congress, attributed the current economic condition in part to a heightened sense of job insecurity among workers and "the reduced market power of labor unions." According to the American Management Association's 1996 survey of the US workforce, 49 percent of large and mid-sized firms reported job eliminations in the twelve months ending in June 1996. Another 1996 poll, this one reported in Business News (Oct. '96), asked people how they felt about their own job security. Only 40 percent of the respondents described their jobs as "very secure;" 49 percent of the affluent report a high confidence in their job security versus 33 percent of their lowest income counterparts.

These developments come on the heels of a decade which saw a dramatic rise in the income gap between high- and low-income families, reversing uninterrupted progress in the postwar period toward lower inequality. The Bureau of the Census reports that upper-income groups experienced substantial income growth in the 1980s (the average income of the top one percent of American families grew 87.5 percent), while the bottom 40 percent of families experienced a decline.

Common sense tells us that some things should be different. Workers who add to the wealth of the company and the community should share in the prosperity they help create. A single parent, accepting responsibility for her life and that of her children, should be better off participating in the workforce than receiving welfare. Businesses that create jobs and serve local needs should prosper. Corporations have an obligation to the people and communities they serve, as well as increasing their return on investment. The economy should be moving toward full employment with prosperity shared fairly and widely. We should be growing together not pulling apart.

A Framework for Economic Life

Catholic social doctrine draws on the person of Jesus Christ, Sacred Scripture, and our rich tradition and experience to place in perspective the relationship of the economy to human life—to offer a moral framework for economic life. This teaching was summarized in ten principles by the U.S. Bishops on the tenth anniversary of their economic pastoral letter, Economic Justice for All. These principles fit on a card that can easily be carried in a purse, briefcase, breast pocket, or lunch pail. They are also available on a poster that can be hung on a wall in the church hall, office, or shop. Every Catholic is encouraged to pick up a copy, to study, meditate, and pray over the content. Every American has a role to play in the direction of the economy. Every Catholic is called to work in pursuit of economic justice. A copy of A Catholic Framework for Economic Life is part of this Labor Day Statement for your review and reflection (see last page). I urge you to obtain copies of the card and share it with your friends, co-workers, and fellow parishioners.

The bishops developed this summary because they recognize that It is easy to get distracted by our daily schedules, weekly budgets, and trying to stretch a paycheck to cover the bills. It is understandable that workers become preoccupied by the uncertainty of employment or the fear of job loss, the cost of health care, the kids' education, and the demands of a materialistic society. But our union with Jesus Christ and our faith in Him reminds us that It is not enough to focus simply on how we personally are faring. We cannot neglect the common good nor the economic health of the larger community we are part of. Despite the difficulties that we may face in life, we cannot become blind to the difficulties that are experienced by our neighbors.

The Meaning of Work

Workers need to see themselves and their workplace in the light of these principles. In our tradition, human labor cannot be treated merely as a factor necessary for production -- people are more than a "human resource." A person cannot be regarded as a tool of production. Work, at its best, helps people to share in the creative activity of God. Work helps each of us to realize our God-given potential and is a vital part of the way in which we contribute to the community. Workplaces should be structured to advance these human and spiritual needs. Work schedules should permit workers time to rest and be with their families. Steps must be taken to ensure that work does not lose its proper focus -- work is an expression of our dignity.

Workers, at the same time, need to assess whether their choices and behavior reflect principles of fairness and ethics --e.g., giving a fair day's work for a day's pay, unnecessarily accumulating overtime, the openness of apprentice programs and employment opportunities to women and minorities. Every economic decision must be judged by whether it helps or hurts people; whether it strengthens or weakens family life; whether it advances or diminishes the quality of justice in our land.

The new welfare law challenges our society to create jobs and open opportunities for people who now must accept their obligation to work in order to support themselves and their children. Those providing these new opportunities must not exploit the situation though inadequate wages, lack of health care insurance, or little or no legal worker protections. The moral obligation to insure these rights falls to employers with the appropriate oversight of public authorities.

The Role of the Church

Our Church is one of the few institutions in American life crossing economic, racial, ethnic, and class lines. We are in the middle and at the edges of society. We are CEO's and migrant farm workers, union presidents and homeless children. We are called to be a bridge community to help overcome the social distance and isolation in our nation. We can help American society rediscover a sense of national community and restore our determination to pursue the common good rather than narrow economic interests.

We must resist those who would selectively use our Catholic tradition to advance their own particular political agendas or use our moral principles as sound bytes for partisan purposes. Ours is a complex and balanced tradition, emphasizing both rights and responsibilities, solidarity and subsidiary, private virtue and public responsibility, the limits and duties of the state, the advantages and limitations of the market, the vital role of voluntary groups and the legitimate obligations of government.

As Catholics, we believe that those who can work, should work. But we believe new rules and repeated lectures on responsibility are no substitute for real jobs with decent wages and a genuine national commitment to help families overcome poverty.

Catholic doctrine supports the right to join unions and bargain collectively and the duty of both labor and management to seek the common good, not simply their own economic advantage.

In Catholic tradition, we believe workers should be paid a wage that can support a family and insist that workers owe an honest day's work for an honest day's pay. We believe in a real social contract between employer and employee, with a worker's labor and loyalty matched by just treatment and loyalty in return.

These principles are not new and they do not offer easy answers for business owners, workers, labor leaders, or public officials. But they do offer a way of looking at the choices we face every day in this economy of growing wealth, growing insecurity, and growing income gaps. The affirmation of these principles is a celebration of Labor Day!

A Catholic Framework for Economic Life

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