Labor Day Statement 2001
The Dignity of Work and Workers:
The Message of Laborem Exercens
Roger Cardinal Mahony, Archbishop of Los Angeles
Chairman, Domestic Policy Committee
United States Conference of Catholic Bishops
September 3, 2001
Two decades ago, Pope John Paul II issued the encyclical Laborem Exercens. This important encyclical reaffirmed and advanced Catholic teaching on the dignity of work and the rights of workers. The themes of the letter reflect the pope's journeys to two diverse parts of the world where he observed very different social conditions. During his trip to Mexico, campesinos told the Holy Father of their miserable working conditions and starvation wages. Lacking the right to organize independent unions, these poor workers struggled to improve their situation.
Even more poignant and personal for the Holy Father was the struggle taking place in Poland where the nascent union, Solidarnosc, had become the voice of a people yearning to be free. Although the conditions were different, the Polish workers—like workers in Mexico—had virtually no role in decisions affecting their lives and their work. In writing his third encyclical, the Holy Father identifies "work " as "a key, probably the essential key, to the whole social question." (LE 3)
Catholic teaching on work — based on the principle that people are more important than things — reflects a compelling Christian revelation. In Genesis, we come to understand that human beings, created in God's image, share in the tasks of the Creator through their work. In Catholic social teaching, work is for the person, not the person for work. Today, despite the remarkable changes in technology, science, international politics, and social conditions, the theme of work is still a major focus of our national agenda and a touchstone in the developing global economy.
Across the United States, many low wage workers seeking meaningful employment and trying to achieve self-sufficiency find it difficult to meet their needs and those of their families. Some struggle to find decent and affordable housing, health care, or safe child care. The restructuring of the welfare system to focus on work—bolstered by a strong economy and tight labor markets—has reduced the welfare rolls significantly. But enthusiasm for falling welfare numbers should be tempered by the reality of persistent poverty and wages too meager to provide for a family's needs. Many may be leaving welfare; too few have left poverty.
Some low wage workers who labor in many important industries come from abroad and are vulnerable to exploitation because they do not enjoy permanent legal status. A legalization program for these workers would help protect their basic labor rights and ensure that all workers in the United States are afforded a living wage and decent working conditions.
In our own tradition, work is not a burden or punishment, but an expression of our dignity and creativity. Those who can work should work and by their labor meet their basic needs and those of their families. As a nation we must ensure that everyone who works full time can earn enough to raise a family. The ongoing effort to raise the minimum wage, such as the bill currently in Congress, is a modest step toward that goal, but still insufficient. Even with this increase, a head of household who works full-time, year round at minimum wage would still live in poverty. As Americans, we can do better than this; raising the minimum wage is just a beginning, but it is the least we should do.
Our concerns for workers extend beyond our borders since we live and act in a global marketplace. Through the eyes of faith, we are called to see others, not as economic rivals or problems, but as members of one human family. The core of Pope John Paul II's message is solidarity. In a rapidly shrinking world "loving our neighbor" takes on a new meaning and globalization redefines and enlarges the Biblical question "who is my neighbor?"
Globalization is a fact, a growing reality. The question is not whether we will have increasing globalization, but whether it will lift people up or push them down; whether it will drive people apart or bring them together; whether it will increase gaps between rich and poor, or build new economic bridges between the peoples of the world. Because of our nation's economic power and unique role in this process, Catholics in the U.S. have a particular responsibility to reflect and act on these matters.
In Laborem Exercens, our Holy Father discusses how new developments in technologies, economics, and political conditions "will require a reordering and adjustment of the structures of the modern economy and the distribution of work."(LE 1) The pope welcomes the possible relief from crushing poverty and the rekindled hope for a better life that people could enjoy. However, he recognizes that such changes could hurt some people through lost jobs, falling living standards, and inhumane working conditions requiring action to cushion their blows and reverse these trends. The role of the Church, itself an international institution, is to raise up the dignity and value of all workers and to seek universal human progress.
Pope John Paul II has stated the task quite clearly, "Globalization is a reality present today in every area of human life, but it is an area which must be managed wisely. Solidarity, too, must become globalized." (May 1, 2000)
This Labor Day let us recommit ourselves to the solidarity of workers and solidarity with workers. As Pope John Paul II reminds us, we must be firmly committed to this cause for [the Church] considers it her mission, her service, a proof of her fidelity to Christ, so that she can truly be the "church of the poor." And the "poor" appear under various forms; they appear in various places and at various times; in many cases they appear as a result of the violations of the dignity of work: either because the opportunities for human work are limited as a result of the scourge of unemployment or because a low value is put on work and the rights that flow from it, especially the rights to a just wage and to personal security of the worker and his or her family. (LE 8) In the Catholic social tradition, the economy—including the global economy—exists to serve the human person, not the other way around. The moral measure of any economy is not simply the information shared, the wealth created, the trade encouraged, but how the lives and dignity of the poor and vulnerable, the hungry and destitute are protected and promoted. The message of Laborem Exercens still challenges us today. We ought to hear and heed it as we celebrate the first Labor Day of this new millennium.