by Mark Pattison
WASHINGTON (CNS) — Labor unions and other worker associations are necessary to help propel workers and their families out of poverty amid a “broken economy,” said the chairman of the U.S. bishops’ Committee on Domestic Justice and Human Development.
“Economic renewal that places working people and their families at the center of economic life cannot take place without effective unions,” declared Bishop Stephen E. Blaire of Stockton, Calif.
“This renewal requires business, religious, labor and civic organizations to work together to help working people defend their dignity, claim their rights and have a voice in the workplace and broader economy,” he said.
“Everyone and every institution has a role to play in building a more just economy,” which “serves the person rather than the other way around.”
Bishop Blaire made his remarks in the annual Labor Day statement issued by the committee he heads. Dated Sept. 3, this year’s observance of the federal Labor Day holiday, the statement, “Placing Work and Workers at the Center of Economic Life,” released Aug. 13, looks at economic issues through Church teaching.
Economic and Moral Failure
“Our country continues to struggle with a broken economy that is not producing enough decent jobs. Millions of Americans suffer from unemployment, underemployment or are living in poverty as their basic needs too often go unmet. This represents a serious economic and moral failure for our nation,” Bishop Blaire said.
“As people of faith, we are called to stand with those left behind, offer our solidarity and join forces with ‘the least of these’ to help meet their basic needs.”
Bishop Blaire said Catholic agencies and institutions are trying to provide help and hope “to exploited and mistreated working people.” He singled out the work of the Catholic Campaign for Human Development, the bishops’ domestic anti-poverty arm, and its Department of Migration and Refugee Services, which works to resettle immigrants arriving in the United States.
“The broken economy also places additional strain on other Catholic organizations such as Catholic Relief Services, Catholic Charities and the Society of St. Vincent de Paul, that struggle to fulfill our Gospel mandate in the face of increased demand and fewer resources,” Bishop Blaire said.
“This broken economy also contributes to the danger that workers will be exploited or mistreated in other ways. For example, many employees struggle for just wages, a safe workplace and a voice in the economy, but they cannot purchase the goods they make, stay in the hotels they clean or eat the food they harvest, prepare or serve,” Bishop Blaire said. “Immigrants and their families are especially vulnerable, which highlights the urgent need for comprehensive immigration reform.”
He cited Pope Benedict XVI’s 2009 encyclical on economic and social issues, “Caritas in Veritate” (“Charity in Truth”), for the link between work and dignity.
“In many cases, poverty results from a violation of the dignity of human work,” the bishop said, “either because work opportunities are limited — through unemployment or underemployment — or ‘because a low value is put on work and the rights that flow from it, especially the right to a just wage and to the personal security of the worker and his or her family.’”
Bishop Blaire quoted Blessed John Paul II, who in his 1991 social encyclical “Centesimus Annus” (“The Hundredth Year”) said that “society and the state must ensure” adequate wages for workers and their families.
“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 late pope said. “The role of trade unions in negotiating minimum salaries and working conditions is decisive in this area.”
“Unions and other worker associations have a unique and essential responsibility in this needed economic renewal,” Bishop Blaire said. “At their best, unions demonstrate solidarity by bringing workers together to speak and act collectively to protect their rights and pursue the common good. Unions are a sign of subsidiarity by forming associations of workers to have a voice, articulate their needs, and bargain and negotiate with the large economic institutions and structures of government.”
He acknowledged that like other institutions, unions “sometimes fall short of this promise and responsibility.” Some union actions, he said, “can contribute to excessive polarization and intense partisanship, can pursue positions that conflict with the common good or can focus on just narrow self-interests.”
But even when they do fall short, Bishop Blaire said, “it does not negate Catholic teaching in support of unions and the protection of working people but calls out for a renewed focus and candid dialogue on how to best defend workers.”