Labor Day Statement 2004

Global Trade That Works for All

September 6, 2004

As we celebrate Labor Day this year, we do so with a greater awareness of the impacts that the global trading system has on working people in the United States and around the world.  As members of a world-wide community of faith, we have long supported measures that overcome divisions and boundaries in the pursuit of greater solidarity and the common good. Unfortunately, the debate over international trade is polarized. Some see increased trade as the solution to all economic problems; others see it as the source of major economic distress.  However, trade is a reality in our interdependent world, as are the rules and agreements that structure it.  Trade can lead to more open markets for U.S. goods and services around the world and more ways for the world to access the U.S. market.  When managed wisely, increased trade can help workers in our own country to live in dignity while enabling workers in the poorest countries to escape poverty.  Labor Day is a good time to reflect on the question of international trade and how to make sure the global economy works for all.

It has become all too clear in recent times that decisions made by governments and companies far from our borders can help or hurt the economic vitality of America’s urban centers and rural areas.  Decisions made here can affect the ability of subsistence farmers and factory workers in Central America, Africa and Asia to earn a living and feed their families.  Our bishops’ conference became more aware of the economic and human benefits and costs of increasing trade in our hemisphere during a visit to the United States by a delegation of bishops from Central America.  They came to discuss the likely impact of the U.S.-Central American Free Trade Agreement (U.S.-CAFTA).

On this Labor Day, we urge our leaders to look at trade policies from the bottom-up—how they touch the lives of the poorest families and most vulnerable workers in our own country and around the world.  Trade policies must reflect fundamental values of justice and dignity, while encouraging sustainable growth, fighting poverty, respecting workers’ rights and caring for the environment.

As the debate around trade heats up, many voices will be heard—government officials, proponents and opponents of trade agreements, industry and labor lobbyists, economists and activists.  Sadly, those least likely to be heard or to have a place at the table are families and workers struggling to make ends meet.

Pope John Paul II has called for the “globalization of solidarity,” inviting us to resist a zero-sum game that separates our brothers and sisters in the U.S. into winners and losers.1  There is a growing concern in the U.S. about moving jobs overseas.  In today’s global economy, many workers are afraid of losing their jobs here to places where labor is plentiful and cheap.  This can lead to resentment that turns workers into economic enemies.  It can also arouse protectionist attitudes resulting in barriers to trade in richer countries that further jeopardize poor workers.

As a global Church, we believe in building bridges and crossing boundaries in order to share both our needs and our gifts.  Arguments that focus simply and exclusively on the likely domestic impact of trade are far too narrow.  At the same time, U.S. workers and their families must be able to earn a decent living and, when necessary, adjust to the requirements of job changes and dislocation.  As Pope John Paul II reminds us: “All must work so that the economic system in which we live does not upset the fundamental order of the priority of work over capital, of the common good over private interest.”2

Effective steps should be taken to minimize serious negative impacts on workers affected by trade and development.  No one at home or abroad should be forced to sacrifice their right to work, their ability to raise a family or their authentic cultural expressions because of the demands of the market.  By ignoring these values, trade policies can fall short of their true potential and, as the Pope has said, “the weakest, the most powerless and the poorest appear to have so little hope!”3  We must always remember that trade agreements and economic policies are not pre-ordained laws of nature, but are created by people and governments.  Their goal must be to promote the dignity of work and the rights of workers.

The labor movement has a proud history of securing rights and benefits that U.S. workers have come to expect and workers in poorer countries hope for, such as the right to organize, to join a union, to decent wages and to safe working conditions.  Catholic social teaching insists on these fundamental rights for workers everywhere.  Our teaching also demands that increased trade not come at the expense of the environment.  While these issues are essential, we should ask a more fundamental question: how can trade policies lead to authentic human development? Some may say that bad jobs are better than no jobs, that poverty is better than misery, that unclean air and polluted water are necessary by-products of economic growth.  And, we respond that one failing does not justify another.  We can do better, and we must do better, in shaping a bold, comprehensive trade and development agenda for our domestic policies as well as bilateral and multilateral trade negotiations.

An encouraging move in this direction was made recently by members of the World Trade Organization in their recent negotiations in Geneva.  In addition to affirming the need for a global trading system, governments, including the United States, made important commitments to reduce some agricultural supports that often assist those who need help the least and neglect those who need it most at home and abroad.  For example, small farms in developing countries can be priced out of the market by protected or subsidized goods from developed countries, while small farms in the U.S. often receive much less government support than large agricultural entities.  Members of the World Trade Organization now need to follow through in ways that honor the spirit of these commitments.

At a time of international instability, how we trade and who we trade with can be a way of building trust and cooperation among nations.  Efforts at extending U.S. compassion around the world can be enhanced or undermined by U.S. trade policies.  How can we insist that developing countries reduce their tariffs on products the poor depend on to survive, while we heavily protect the same products at home?  “Loving our neighbor” in a globalized world requires economic policies and political will to convert our comforting words into effective deeds, especially towards those who are less able or less likely to benefit from increased trade.

We urge policymakers, legislators, advocates and citizens involved in trade policies and trade agreements currently being negotiated by the United States to consider these key questions:

  • How do these agreements touch the lives and dignity of poor families and vulnerable workers in our country and the countries of our trading partners?
  • Do they restructure and reduce excessive agricultural supports so that vulnerable farmers in our country and developing countries have a fair chance at selling their crops and making a living?  Do reforms target supports to small and medium-sized U.S. farms?
  • Do poor countries have sufficient flexibility to set trade policies that can protect sensitive industries, as developed countries have done in the past, so their farmers can produce sufficient food for their families, have income security and promote rural development?
  • How can trade negotiations combat corruption, increase accountability, and ensure that the voices of the poor are heard?
  • Are there real and effective mechanisms in trade agreements that ensure fundamental labor and environmental standards and take into account the impact on migration?
  • Are trade policies part of a wider development agenda that provides continuing appropriate assistance on a range of broader social and economic issues, such as the Millennium Challenge Account, and addresses the human cost of economic dislocation?
The moral measure of trade policy is not simply the trade increased, the growth produced, or the money made; rather it is the lives lifted up, the decent jobs created, and the families leaving poverty behind.  We urge representatives in all nations affected by these trade agreements to look beyond partisan concerns, beyond the contributions and commercials of powerful interests.  We ask them to look at trade policies through the eyes of the poor and vulnerable as well as those desperate to earn a living for themselves and their families.

When managed justly, increased trade can offer opportunities to current and future workers in a way that puts the global economy at the service of all men and women.  Following the Holy Father’s plea, as we give thanks this Labor Day for the many blessings God has given us; let us pledge to build a nation and a world where the dignity and rewards of work are shared by all God’s children.

Cardinal Theodore E. McCarrick, Archbishop of Washington
Chairman, Domestic Policy Committee
United States Conference of Catholic Bishops


(1)Ecclesia in America, Jan. 22, 1999, #55
(2) Jubilee Of Workers, May 1, 2000
(3) Ecclesia de Eucharistia, April 17, 2003, #20
See more resources by category: