As we celebrate Labor Day weekend, it is so easy to forget the real reason for this holiday and the workers that stand behind it. In fact, the reason for this national celebration has almost disappeared from popular attention. Labor Day is not about the end of summer. It is not about “blow out” sales and it is not to give academics one last day to photocopy the syllabus. It is a day to celebrate workers and their contributions to our society. When it was created, there were even parades for workers and unions.
This year, the spirit of this holiday is sadly overshadowed by uncharitable election year attacks on organized labor, broad calls to cut regulations that were created to protect the rights of working women and men, and a new public mood that demonizes the poor working class and threatens to cut the ropes of the social safety net.
Catholic social teaching, as is well known, has a long tradition of supporting workers and unions. Almost every pope over the past one hundred years and every bishops’ conference in the world has strongly affirmed the church’s commitment to workers, their right to unionize, the moral obligation to provide a fair wage, and the obligations of government to protect these rights. Church movements like the young Christian worker movement and the movements of labor priests are working to serve the pastoral and social needs of working men and women. Theologians, like Fr. Dan Horan, OFM, see strong spiritual insights in labor.
Today, the US Catholic Bishops issued their Labor Day statement, which strongly reminds the nation and the Church or our moral obligations to workers, the support of Catholic social teaching on unions, and the need for work for economic justice.
Unfortunately, many Catholics seem unaware of the church’s strong teachings in this regard. Recently, for example, I was shocked to read anti-union comments by a priest I know on facebook.
As we celebrate, Labor Day this year, I would like to highlight five aspects of the church’s social teaching on work (especially as taught by Pope Benedict XVI) with some questions as a way to challenge us to rethink the meaning of this holiday.
1. Given the interdependence of the human family and the interconnections of the global labor market, we have the responsibility to work for the rights and dignity of all workers, including migrants and those on the other side of the planet. Workers and consumers should unite across borders to promote human dignity.
The phenomenon, as everyone knows, is difficult to manage; but there is no doubt that foreign workers, despite any difficulties concerning integration, make a significant contribution to the economic development of the host country through their labour, besides that which they make to their country of origin through the money they send home. Obviously, these labourers cannot be considered as a commodity or a mere workforce. They must not, therefore, be treated like any other factor of production. Every migrant is a human person who, as such, possesses fundamental, inalienable rights that must be respected by everyone and in every circumstance. Pope Benedict XVI, Caritas in Veritate (CiV), #40
The global context in which work takes place also demands that national labour unions…should turn their attention to those outside their membership, and in particular to workers in developing countries where social rights are often violated. The protection of these workers, partly achieved through appropriate initiatives aimed at their countries of origin, will enable trade unions to demonstrate the authentic ethical and cultural motivations that made it possible for them, in a different social and labour context, to play a decisive role in development Pope Benedict XVI, CiV, #64.
Take a moment to look around you. Where was your computer or phone made? Where were your clothes made? Where did the coffee or tea that you drink come from? Do they live and work in just conditions? Do you know how US trade policy impacts the lives of workers in other countries? Would you want their jobs, or their lifestyles? How do we benefit from cheap labor? How do we act for the rights of migrants and workers in other countries?
2. The Growing gaps between the rich and the poor (nationally and globally) place special obligations on wealthy consumers to respect the needs and dignity of the working poor. The human person, created in the image and likeness of God, takes priority over profits. People have the right to a just wage.
The world’s wealth is growing in absolute terms, but inequalities are on the increase. In rich countries, new sectors of society are succumbing to poverty and new forms of poverty are emerging. In poorer areas some groups enjoy a sort of “superdevelopment” of a wasteful and consumerist kind which forms an unacceptable contrast with the ongoing situations of dehumanizing deprivation. “The scandal of glaring inequalities” continues. Corruption and illegality are unfortunately evident in the conduct of the economic and political class in rich countries, both old and new, as well as in poor ones. Among those who sometimes fail to respect the human rights of workers are large multinational companies as well as local producers. Pope Benedict XVI, CiV 22
Hence the consumer has a specific social responsibility, which goes hand-in- hand with the social responsibility of the enterprise. Consumers should be continually educated regarding their daily role, which can be exercised with respect for moral principles without diminishing the intrinsic economic rationality of the act of purchasing. Pope Benedict XVI, CiV, 66
How do you feel about growing gaps between the rich and the poor? Do you see this as a question of justice? How might we participate in structures that support these inequalities? How do our (consumer) lifestyles lead to an “unacceptable contrast with the ongoing situations of dehumanizing deprivation”? What can we do to change this?
3. In the face of these inequalities, the formation of unions and associations of workers is not only a right, but a responsibility. Unions may not always be perfect, but this right must be supported locally and globally.
Through the combination of social and economic change, trade union organizations experience greater difficulty in carrying out their task of representing the interests of workers, partly because Governments, for reasons of economic utility, often limit the freedom or the negotiating capacity of labour unions. Hence traditional networks of solidarity have more and more obstacles to overcome. The repeated calls issued within the Church’s social doctrine, beginning with Rerum Novarum for the promotion of workers’ associations that can defend their rights must therefore be honoured today even more than in the past, as a prompt and far-sighted response to the urgent need for new forms of cooperation at the international level, as well as the local level. Pope Benedict XVI, CiV 25
Have you spoken with someone in a union about their experiences? How can we support the right to unionize? What do you know about the historical contribution of unions to economic development? Why is there so much hatred towards unions today?
4. All of us must be aware of the social dimensions of our work and labor. Work is not only for the self, but also has duties to the common good. Just as our work contributes to the common good, we also benefit from the labor of others.
All work has a threefold moral significance. First, it is a principle way that people exercise the distinctive human capacity for self-expression and self-realization. Second, it is the ordinary way for human beings to fulfill their material needs. Finally, work enables people to contribute to the well-being of the larger community. Work is not only for one’s self. It is for one’s family, for the nation, and indeed for the benefit of the entire human family. US Catholic Bishops, Economic Justice for All #97
Work is a duty, because our Creator demanded it and because it maintains and develops our humanity. We must work out of regard for others, especially our own families, but also because of the society we belong to and in fact because of the whole of humanity. Pope John Paul II, On Human Work, #16
How do we see our own work in relation to others? How do we benefit from the work of others? How do we see work as a social duty? Do we have an individualistic conception of work or do we value the role of others in our labor?
5. Government and civil authorities have a positive role in promoting work and protecting the rights of workers. The role of government is not just to get out of the way of the unregulated free market. Catholic social teaching stands in favor of effective regulation. Government exists for the common good and has a role to play in creating jobs, safeguarding the rights of workers to unionize, and ensuring a living just wage.
The government should make similarly effective efforts to see that those who are able to work can find employment in keeping with their aptitudes, and that each worker receives a wage in keeping with the laws of justice and equity. It should be equally the concern of civil authorities to ensure that workers be allowed their proper responsibility in the work undertaken in industrial organization, and to facilitate the establishment of intermediate groups which will make social life richer and more effective. Blessed John XXIII, Pacem in Terris, #64
How can governments help to fulfill their obligations to the common good and to workers? How can we ensure that there is a minimum social security net so that the full human dignity of each worker is respected?
“An injury to one is the concern of all”
“An injury to one is the concern of all” – the slogan of the Knights of Labor, the historic labor union that helped to prompt the writing of Rerum Novarum, captures well the spirit of the holiday and the imperative for us all to be concerned with the struggles of working women and men here and around the world. Like Pope John Paul II’s “virtue of solidarity” (a term close to the Polish labor unions), the slogan expresses our interdependence with those who work.
As we celebrate Labor Day this year, let us take some time in this spirit of solidarity to pray in gratitude for all those who work and contribute to our society, to pray for those who do not have work or who do not earn a just/living wage, pray for those who manufacture the consumer goods that we use, and pray for a deeper spirit of solidarity.