Labor Day Statement 1999

Year Published
  • 2012
  • English

Social Security and Solidarity

Cardinal Roger Mahony, Archbishop of Los Angeles
Chairman, Domestic Policy Committee
United States Catholic Conference
September 6, 1999

The first Monday in September is set aside as a legal holiday in our country to recognize the worker. This should be more than a day for shopping and preparing for school. Catholics especially should use this holiday to recall how our tradition has long recognized the dignity of work and the rights of workers. Catholic teaching insists: "All people have the right to economic initiative, to productive work, to just wages and benefits, to decent working conditions, as well as to organize and join unions or other associations."

On this Labor Day Americans have much to be grateful for: economic freedom, low inflation, and economic growth. But our prosperity is not being widely shared. Too many have been left behind and the gap in family income continues to widen. The top 5 percent of the population takes a larger share of personal income today than similar people did 30 years ago, (a 16 percent share in 1968, 24 percent in 1996). While the share of income going to people in the middle 60 percent has declined by nearly 10 percent over the same period, the decline is even sharper for those in the bottom 20 percent.This trend is part of the reason why we need a strong, active, democratic labor movement.

Workers, particularly members of organized labor, have given much to America over the last century. Through their efforts the great American middle-class was born. Yet American unions never capitulated to the concept of "class" struggle that found such fertile ground in the rest of the industrial world. Union leaders instead saw their organization as part of the American experiment in democracy and urged their membership to seek social justice for all instead of class struggle.

Many of the values imbedded in the labor movement's search for social justice reflect our own faith values, as we seek public policies that protect and promote strong families, expand a stable middle-class, create decent jobs, and reduce the level of poverty and need in our society. Unions seek such policies even when their own members do not directly benefit from the legislation. An early example of this is the historic legislation that became the Social Security Program.

The nation is having a national dialogue on how to reform Social Security. The U.S. Bishops offered their reflections in a recent statement, A Commitment to all Generations: Social Security and the Common Good. The bishops believe that Social Security reflects our commitment as a society to ensure a minimum level of security for all workers, their families, and persons with disabilities. It provides an effective and dignified way for Americans to honor their responsibility to provide basic income security and medical insurance (through Medicare) for the elderly, persons with disabilities, and their dependents.

  • Social Security has helped reduce poverty rates for the elderly.
  • The disability benefits of Social Security assist low- and average-wage workers often as much as, or more than, the retirement part.
  • Social Security benefits lift over a million children out of poverty each year through the survivors' benefits due them upon the death of a parent.
With the support of organized labor, other laws have been enacted to further protect all workers and their families:
  • The minimum wage act seeks to protect workers and their families from economic exploitation by requiring a common wage floor.
  • The Earned Income Credit (EITC) allows low-income families to augment their income through the income tax system.
  • The Family and Medical Leave Act permits workers to take time off from work to    care for themselves or their families.
These laws, such as Social Security, are important to us as individuals and to the nation. Most union members have labor contracts that far exceed the minimum benefits established by these laws, but the unions continue to fight hard to maintain their existence.

This Labor Day, we need to reflect as Christians on the values we seek to advance in our economic and public life. We need to assess how often the principles that we believe are vital to maintaining our national commitment ensuring a life of dignity for our parents, ourselves, and our children are reflected in the national dialogue over the future of Social Security and national economic policy. In making this assessment, here are themes drawn from Catholic teaching that are relevant to the choices we face on the future of Social Security:

Human Dignity
We must recognize our responsibilities to the elderly and persons with disabilities to insure their dignity and worth so that they can enjoy their God-given rights.

Common Good
Because we live in community, our human rights are realized as part of that community. We must all work together, across generations and economic lines, for the sake of the common good, for the general welfare of the entire human family.

Option for the Poor and Solidarity
The Biblical mandate requires us to care for the widow, the orphan, and the stranger. Today there are still widows and orphans needing assistance. There are also "strangers" to our community or to us, such as persons with disabilities, older Americans and immigrants, who need the support of their families and the community to continue to live productive and dignified lives.

Individuals, employers, and employees, often cannot achieve security for themselves and their families without some form of support offered by the entire nation. This concept of social insurance is a necessary complement to achieving that security for average and low wage earning families. Government should participate in creating a comprehensive program for insurance against illness, disability, unemployment, and old age.

On this Labor Day, we need to take our faith into the world. "Catholicism does not call us to abandon the world, but to help shape it. This does not mean leaving worldly tasks and responsibilities, but transforming them. Catholics ... are corporate executives and migrant farm workers, senators and welfare recipients, university presidents and day care workers, tradesmen and farmers, office and factory workers, union leaders and small business owners. Our entire community of faith must help Catholics to be instruments of God's grace and creative power in business and politics, factories and offices, in homes and schools and in all the events of daily life." Catholics in particular are called to examine their economic relationships through the lens of Catholic Social Teaching principles. The Church asks Catholics to think about public policy proposals not only from the perspective of their individual or family self-interest but also from the perspective of average and low-wage workers and their families.

On Labor Day it is worth remembering the role of the labor movement in the passage of Social Security, minimum wage, earned income credit (EITC), and other laws designed to protect all workers and their families. We should consider how our faith can shape the values we hold as employers, workers, owners, and investors. Catholics should join with business and labor in legislative networks and other efforts to have their voices heard as critical decisions are being made. Finally, people of good will must continue to support a social contract which reflects our enduring commitments to all children, all parents, and to ail members of the one human family.

This Labor Day let us celebrate what we have achieved together and recommit ourselves to economic justice and security for all.


1. A Catholic Framework for Economic Lift, #5, NCCB/USCC, 1996 (Pub. #5-139)
2. Mishel et al. 1999. THE STATE OF WORKING AMERICA 1998-1999. An
Economic Policy Institute Book. Ithaca, N.Y.: IRL Press, Cornell University Press, 1998.
3. A Commitment to ail Generations: Social Security and the Common Good. NCCB/USCC, 1999 (Pub. #5-326)
4. Ibid.
5. Everyday Christianity: To Hunger and Thirst for Justice, NCCB/USCC 1999 (Pub. #5-116) 
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