Labor Day Statement 2000

A Jubilee for Workers:
Challenges and Opportunities for the New Millennium

Cardinal Roger Mahony, Archbishop of Los Angeles
Chairman, Domestic Policy Committee
United States Catholic Conference
September 4, 2000

This Labor Day, September 4, 2000, has been declared the Jubilee Day of Workers. It is a day set aside to honor working men and women and to celebrate the meaning and value of work as we begin a new millennium.

From its early Hebrew origins, Jubilee has focused on the importance and meaning of work. Leviticus 25 speaks about the relationship of people to the land and to their work. It speaks about the farming, financial practices and work of the Jewish people. It encourages the just distribution of goods. God's people are reminded that all things come from God and they are for common use.

The Book of Genesis records God's command to human beings: "Fill the earth and subdue it" (Gn 1: 28). We fulfill this command through work.

In God's plan and Catholic teaching, work is both a right and duty. It is a right because work is how we express our dignity and provide for ourselves and our families. Work is necessary to help use the earth's resources to benefit each of us and all of society. Through work we contribute to God's continuing creation. Indeed, work helps to direct human activity toward God. In the words of St. Paul "Whatever you do, do all to the glory of God" (1 Cor. 10: 31).

Over the past century, the Church has developed its teachings on work and economic life. Our Catholic tradition holds that "human work is a key, probably the essential key, to the whole social question" (Laborem Exercens #3) facing society. This Jubilee year is a good time to reflect on the progress and problems of the American economy and how it can serve all of God's children.

The American people are experiencing the longest sustained economic growth in history. Work is abundant. Profits are growing. People are moving from welfare to work. The unemployment rate is remarkably low, below what many thought was possible just a few years ago. Real family income has begun to rise again. Inflation seems to be held at bay.

These certainly are very good times. But the big picture can mask the growing gap between rich and poor. Economic growth can sometimes distribute economic benefits inequitably. Some new jobs offer meager wages and few benefits. Just beneath the surface of economic prosperity lies the reality of what our bishops have described as three economies living side-by-side (NCCB, A Decade After Economic Justice for All, 1996).

A first economy finds many people prospering in this new information age and global marketplace. They not only cope but thrive in the new economy, experiencing remarkable economic rewards for themselves, their families and their companies. They are moving ahead.

A second economy includes people who are doing well by some measure, but are squeezed by declining incomes, struggle to afford health care, and worry about the cost of a college education or Catholic schools for their children. They find the new "global competition" not only an opportunity but also a source of worry.

A third economy touches a substantial number of people who are left behind and cannot escape poverty. Too often they live in the wrong place—a neighborhood without decent jobs or affordable housing. They lack the necessary skills for the "new economy." Many need not only decent well-paying jobs, but the means to get to work and/or the child care necessary to continue working.

For Christians, these realities represent not just troubling statistics, but the struggles of brothers and sisters, members of our one human family. The values of our faith call us to shape economic policies that protect human dignity, promote strong families, and create vibrant communities. In our religious tradition the fundamental moral test of any society is how the poor, the weak, and the vulnerable are faring.

We are making progress, but challenges remain. One vital challenge is the increasing globalization of finance, trade, and work in our world. Rapid globalization is one of the reasons for both economic growth and economic dislocation. Retraining of dislocated workers to allow them to engage in the developing technologies should be a top priority. At the same time, workers, particularly those in the growing service industry, must be assured of their right to choose whether to organize and join unions or other associations to promote and defend their dignity. The Church has long stood and continues to stand with workers and their unions in the struggle for justice, decent wages and a meaningful voice in economic life. The results of globalization must be managed wisely and assessed for their impact on human life and human work. In the words of John Paul II: "Solidarity too must become globalized." (Jubilee of Workers, May 1, 2000)

The debate over globalization is often polarized: some see it as the solution to economic problems; others see it as the source of economic difficulties, especially for vulnerable workers and poor families. The Church looks to raise the moral and human dimensions of these issues — how they touch immigrants fleeing poverty, workers seeking their rights, regions like Africa and parts of Latin America that could be left behind, trade embargoes which shape our relations with other peoples and nations, and the oppressive debt that impedes the progress of many developing nations. While Pope John Paul II's call for debt forgiveness to mark the Jubilee Year is being addresses by the Congress and the Administration, much more is needed.

The bishops' Conference is exploring ways to encourage a Catholic conversation on economic globalization framed by our traditions and values. We intend to invite business and labor leaders, economists and theologians, those who shape globalization and those touched by it to join in a discussion of both the opportunities and challenges of rapid globalization, who it lifts up and who it leaves behind. We believe our social tradition and our everyday experiences as a community of faith and service—both here at home and around the world—give us unique perspectives and useful contributions to contribute to the discussion on globalization.

Another critical issue related to globalization is the plight of immigrant workers in our country. We must treat immigrants with the dignity and honor afforded all people. Many of these workers, regardless of their immigration status, have contributed greatly to the overall economy. In exchange for their willingness to work in difficult jobs with little pay and few benefits, they are often mistreated and abused. To address this serious problem, there should be serious consideration of a general amnesty for those workers who come to the U.S. fleeing oppression and destitution and who make significant contributions to our society.

As we celebrate Labor Day and observe the Jubilee Day for Workers, we should also remember election day comes in two months. "As Catholics, we can celebrate the Great Jubilee by recommitting ourselves to carry the values of the Gospels and church into the public square. As citizens, we can and must participate in the debates and choices over the values, vision, and leaders that will take our nation into the next century." (Faithful Citizenship) Let us use the campaign to raise the ethical and moral questions surrounding the dignity of work and the rights of workers and to lift up the call to economic justice in our nation and world.

It is worth remembering on this Labor Day—this Jubilee for Workers—that a person is more valuable for what she or he is than for what they have, for the work they do rather than for what they possess. We must join together—workers and employers, entrepreneurs and union leaders, tradespeople and policy makers—to build a society that respects each person and their work. This is our continuing challenge and our necessary work as we begin this new millennium.
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