Part two in our Labor Day series.
In our recent post on the working poor in America, we discussed our broken economy’s inability to provide enough decent jobs for millions of Americans who are unemployed, underemployed, uninsured, or living in poverty. As we celebrate Labor Day this coming weekend, our second installment further examines this issue, along with recent responses to the crisis by labor organizations and the Catholic Church.
A Call for Economic Renewal and Support for Workers
Many labor organizations, workers advocates, employment attorneys and workers’ compensation lawyers have cheered the recent statements published by the Catholic Church supporting the basic rights of workers. In its Labor Day Statement last week, the Committee on Domestic Justice and Human Development of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops (USCCB) argued that renewed respect for workers was the key to economic recovery and social justice in the U.S. As Bishop Stephen E. Blaire wrote: “Everyone and every institution has a role to play in building a more just economy. In the words of our Conference, we seek an economy that serves the person rather than the other way around.” To reinforce his position, he included a quote from John Paul II:
“…society and the State must ensure wage levels adequate for the maintenance of the worker and his family, including a certain amount for savings. This requires a continuous effort to improve workers’ training and capability so that their work will be more skilled and productive, as well as careful controls and adequate legislative measures to block shameful forms of exploitation, especially to the disadvantage of the most vulnerable workers, of immigrants and of those on the margins of society. The role of trade unions in negotiating minimum salaries and working conditions is decisive in this area” (Centesimus Annus, no. 15).
Bishop Blaire goes on to argue that unions and other labor organizations play are essential to the success of any economic renewal. He states that the Catholic Church has long taught that unions are “an indispensable element of social life, especially in modern industrialized societies” (Laborem Exercens, no. 20) and are examples of the traditional Catholic principles of solidarity and subsidiarity in action. When functioning at their best, unions embody solidarity by empowering workers and giving them a voice, and allowing them to act collectively to defend their rights and promote the common good. Unions allow individuals who would otherwise have little power to join together and negotiate with the government as well as larger economic institutions.
Granted, like all institutions — whether business, faith-based organizations, or civic groups — unions can fall short of their potential and responsibilities. Some union activity even contributes to polarization and excessive partisanship, or may pursue self-interested goals that can conflict with the larger common good. Yet even labor institutions show these failings, argues Bishop Blaire, this does not counteract Catholic principles in support of unions and the protection of working people. Rather, it highlights the importance of a renewed focus and honest dialogue about how to defend workers and their families. In fact, he claims that an economic policy that puts working people at the center of economic life can never fully be realized without effective unions. Such a renewal will also include business, religious, labor, and civic organizations in mutual cooperation to help the working poor maintain their dignity, protect their rights, and gain a meaningful voice in our workplace and broader economy.
Building a More Just Economy
In this period of economic turmoil and insecurity, Americans need to consider the ethical implications of widespread poverty and insufficient job opportunity. We must combine our efforts and ideas to develop a productive, “human” economy that provides opportunity, generates decent jobs, promotes growth, honors the dignity of working people, safeguards the family, and allows for genuine human development.
Among current political candidates, the relative neglect of the moral imperative to eliminate poverty is disturbing. Despite growing levels of poverty, it is rare to hear candidates or elected officials discuss the plight of the working poor, the homeless and the destitute among us, let alone offer a viable program for overcoming those problems. Yet it is precisely the role of our nation’s leaders to both envision and implement concrete and specific steps to lift our fellow Americans out of poverty. As the USCCB wrote in its Labor Day Statement: “In this election year, Catholics should review and act on what the U.S. bishops said on economic issues in Forming Consciences for Faithful Citizenship:
“Economic decisions and institutions should be assessed according to whether they protect or undermine the dignity of the human person. Social and economic policies should foster the creation of jobs for all who can work with decent working conditions and just wages. Barriers to equal pay and employment for women and those facing unjust discrimination must be overcome. Catholic social teaching supports the right of workers to choose whether to organize, join a union, and bargain collectively, and to exercise these rights without reprisal. It also affirms economic freedom, initiative, and the right to private property. Workers, owners, employers, and unions should work together to create decent jobs, build a more just economy, and advance the common good (no. 76).”
The Conference of Bishops are currently at work drafting a pastoral statement on work, poverty, and our faltering economy. This reflection is expected to draw heavily from Pope Benedict’s encyclicals, and will reaffirm the Church’s solidarity with all individuals who have been left behind or exploited. The document will serve as an embodiment of responding to the call of Pope Paul VI to the laity:
…to take the initiatives freely and to infuse a Christian spirit into the mentality, customs, laws and structures of the community in which they live. Let each one examine himself, to see what he has done up to now, and what he ought to do. It is not enough to recall principles, state intentions, point to crying injustice and utter prophetic denunciations; these words will lack real weight unless they are accompanied for each individual by a livelier awareness of personal responsibility and by effective action (Octogesima Adveniens, no. 48).
This Labor Day, as millions of working and unemployed Americans experience poverty, crisis, anxiety, and a deterioration of family life, we ask readers to join us in solidarity to promote the rights of everyone to support themselves through decent and secure work.
Third Party Claim Lawyers
The employment attorneys at Emery Reddy defend the rights of workers in all industries and occupations. We encourage you to contact us immediately for a free consultation if you have experienced discrimination, wrongful termination, a wage dispute, or some other workplace violation involving the Family Medical Leave Act or Americans with Disabilities Act. In addition, the Emery Reddy workers’ compensation attorneys and Third Party Claim Lawyers can negotiate your case with the department of Labor and Industries; provide assistance with a rejected L&I claim; protect you again illegal practices during the independent medical examination; and assist with other issues involving Washington L&I.