The U.S. bishops released their annual Labor Day statement on Aug. 24. Penned by Stockton, Calif., Bishop Stephen Blaire “Human Costs and Moral Challenges of a Broken Economy" will likely prove notable for observations that in years past would have hardly seemed controversial: his reiteration of the U.S. church's historical support of organized labor and an acknowledgment of the American labor movement's intricate relationship with the growth of the U.S. church and the development of Catholic social teaching:
Beginning in Rerum Novarum, the Church has consistently supported efforts of workers to join together to defend their rights and protect their dignity. Pope Leo XIII taught that the right of workers to choose to join a union was based on a natural right and that it was the government’s obligation to protect that right rather than undermine it (Rerum Novarum, no. 51)... Pope John Paul II, in his powerful encyclical Laborem Exercens, noted unions “defend the existential interests of workers in all sectors in which their rights are concerned. . . . [They] are an indispensable element of social life, especially in modern industrialized societies” (no. 20). Most recently, in Caritas in Veritate, Pope Benedict XVI said, “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 honored today even more than in the past . . .” (no. 25).
The tension that has pertained to the issue of the collective bargaining rights of public sector workers around the country could not go uncommented upon this year, and Bishop Blaire notes:
There have been some efforts, as part of broader disputes over state budgets, to remove or restrict the rights of workers to collective bargaining as well as limit the role of unions in the workplace. Bishops in Wisconsin, Ohio, and elsewhere have faithfully and carefully outlined Catholic teaching on worker rights, suggesting that difficult times should not lead us to ignore the legitimate rights of workers. Without endorsing every tactic of unions or every outcome of collective bargaining, the Church affirms the rights of workers in public and private employment to choose to come together to form and join unions, to bargain collectively, and to have an effective voice in the workplace.... Our Church continues to teach that unions remain an effective instrument to protect the dignity of work and the rights of workers. At their best, unions are important not just for the economic protections and benefits they can provide for their members, but especially for the voice and participation they can offer to workers. They are important not only for what they achieve for their members, but also for the contributions they make to the whole society.
Perhaps anticipating an uproar from certain quarters of the church which seem to have over time (and growing U.S. affluence) become hostile to the legitimacy of the social role of organized labor (or embarrassed somehow by the church's intimate historical terms with it), Blaire hastens to add, "This does not mean every outcome of bargaining is responsible or that all actions of particular unions—or for that matter employers—merit support. Unions, like other human institutions, can be misused or can abuse their role."
That should be a given, but it speaks to the ideological pressuress of the era that Blaire feels compelled to articulate it. It is probably not easy to come up with specifics for this general objection though. After all, while they may still represent a little over 32 percent of public sector workers, unions represent just 6.9 of the private workforce and altogether just about 11 percent of the total U.S. workforce, far below their historic highs and significantly below even the 20 percent they represented in 1983. That's part of the reason I am amazed at how well unions retain their bogeyman status to some. (Listening to the vehement denouncements of organized labor emerging from the sons and daughters of union workers whose college educations were financed by union wages likewise mystifies me.) Given their declining bodies one would have to seek far and wide for examples of the social maliciousness of organized labor although the internet is overrun with rhetoric about union "thugs." (That currently common usage is an interesting historical reversal in its own right. The terms "thugs" in the past was associated with the Pinkertons and head thumpers America's captains of industry hired to beat down—or worse—union organizers). Bishop Blaire also lightly takes union leaders to task for "public positions that the Church cannot support, which many union members may not support, and which have little to do with work or workers’ rights." All the same as this Labor Day approaches, Bishop Blaire's qualified renewal of vows with organzied labor will no doubt be welcomed by unionized laity even as it promotes teeth grinding elsewhere.
But if you proceed further along in the statement, you will find Bishop Blaire's most poignant insight into the nation's recent disconnects related to the economy. He writes:
"Sometimes economic troubles bring out the worst in us. Uncertainty and fear compel us to fight for our own interests and to preserve our own advantages. There is too much finger pointing and blaming of others and efforts to take advantage in political and economic arenas. We have seen efforts to limit or abolish elements of collective bargaining and restrict the roles of workers and their unions. Some demonize the market or government as the source of all our economic problems. Immigrants have been unfairly blamed for some of the current economic difficulties. Too often, the loudest voices often get the most attention and a predictable and unproductive cycle of blame and evasion takes place, but there is little effective action to address fundamental problems.
How can Catholics interrupt such dysfunctional cycles?
There is another way to respond to the difficult situation in which we find ourselves. We can understand and act like we are part of one economy, one nation, and one human family. We can acknowledge our responsibility for the ways--large or small—we contributed to this crisis. We can all accept our responsibility for working together to overcome this economic stagnation and all that comes with it. We can clearly respect the legitimacy and roles of others in economic life: business and labor, private enterprise and public institutions, for profit and non-profit, religious and academic, community and government. We can avoid challenging the motives of others. We can advocate our principles and priorities with conviction, integrity, civility, and respect for others. We can look for common ground and seek the common good. We can encourage all the institutions in our society to work together to reduce joblessness, promote economic growth, overcome poverty, increase prosperity, and make the shared sacrifices and—even compromises—necessary to begin to heal our broken economy.
It's of course much easier to say such things than to figure out how to turn them into a civic reality. Still I can't help but admire the sentiment and as this blog is as good a place as any to start reweaving the common good, let me take a moment to wish all my Catholic brothers and sisters whichever side of the union line they're on, a happy and barbeque-enriched Labor Day.