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.

Comments

Greta Green | 9/5/2011 - 8:19pm
In keeping with the theme called for a shared sacrifice and to avoid hypocracy by the USCCB social justice group, I think everyone should call for them to do what they preach.  Starting tomorrow, each of the dioceses in the country should have in local union leaders to review the salaries and benefits of all their employees in the parish schools, high schools, universities, hospitals, and any other institution under the Catholic name.  After a quick review, all salaries and benefits and policies should match those in the same profession in the local area such as the local public schools.  We need to make sure this group of leaders who want to speak on economic issues are not running institutions not equal to those of the local union workers. 

I can hear the excuses and squeals already on how this would force them to shut down their "businesses" because there is not enough "revenue" donations to allow them to stay open if forced to pay equal wages and benefits or have to match all the various requirments and seniority. 

The USCCB should make sure they are doing what they preach before telling the taxpayer and citizens of this country that they have to keep paying taxes to support a bloated and inefficient government program and that it has anything in the world to do with Catholic teaching.  I know of nothing Jesus has said anywhere that says his followers needed to send money to rome so they could handle all the issues of the poor and everything else in our lives.  After all, the Church existed for hundreds of years before FDR, LBJ, and BHO.  As to the slam at immigration, I know of no one that is protesting immigrants to this country.  What is being protested is those who despite the fact that we take in more immigrants legally with their families and pro,vide them more benefits than any other country in the world, want to break our immigration laws to get here and then break more laws to stay here or the employers that hire them to cut costs.  If the bishops are do dumb to see the difference, maybe they should stop forcing citizens of this country to get fingerprinted to work in their institutions because they broke other laws of this country and covered them up. 
Vince Killoran | 8/30/2011 - 3:07pm
Yeah, right-and we know how all those workers are filing lawsuits from being fired from their low-wage jobs.  

You might see cases hit your desk but my experience,and those of friends (one who worked for the Minnesota Department of Human Rights) is that workers have no recourse.  The overwhelming don't do anything about it-because they can't do anything about it!


Discrimination-based lawsuits are more common-but many are unsuccessful and difficult for plaintiffs to litigate.  Even the first step is difficult: the EEOC has a huge backlog in processing complaints.
Vince Killoran | 8/30/2011 - 12:05am
Sorry Jeff but your claim that "Firing a worker for any reason is extremely difficult" is downright wrong. It's strange that you would make such a statement, especially because you are a lawyer and know better.


The simple matter is that most private sector employees (except those in unions) are "at-will" employees. See, for example, this from the NYS government website: "New York State is generally considered to be an "employment at will" state, which means that a private sector employer can pretty much hire and fire as he or she pleases and a discharged employee usually will have no legal recourse even when the discharge is unfair or unreasonable." (http://www.ag.ny.gov/bureaus/labor/fired.html). 


Vince Killoran | 8/29/2011 - 4:29pm
p.s. http://www.consumeraffairs.com/news04/2011/01/only-2-of-american-workers-are-satisfied-with-their-jobs.html
Vince Killoran | 8/29/2011 - 4:27pm
Walter: There are plenty of polls that demonstrate deep dissatisfaction. If our system you better be happy or the boss can fire you for nearly everything except civil rights violations (and even there the complaint system is seriously backlogged).

Jeff:The labor movement was built with the secret ballot-even with all the corporate anti-unionism today workers vote for union affiliation more often than they vote against it.

Labor law is weak, however: weak penalties for mgt. engaging in unfair labor practices, lots of delays by clogging up the NLRB, & many times companies thwart the democractic process by dragging their heels on agreeing to a first contract. 

Don't you believe in the democratic workplace?
Anonymous | 8/29/2011 - 3:06pm
"These occur after an election where the majority of the workforce vote to join a union. It's what we do in a democracy."

WITH a secret ballot, I assume?  Or you against that, too, in the name of "democracy"?  The way the unions tell it, a secret ballot spells the doom of the labor movement.  So how far does democracy go?
Anonymous | 8/30/2011 - 2:24pm
Vince, from a legal perspective, being at "at will" employee is a matter all together separate from how easy or hard it is fire a worker.  Instead of thanking God for unions, you should be (I suppose) thankig God for plaintiff's lawyers who are more than willing to sue employers for firing employees, and thereby making it difficult for an employer to fire employees.  Your protestations aside, in MY EXPERIENCE, employees simply cannot be fired as easy as you assert because a lawsuit will be filed against them before weeks' end. 
Vince Killoran | 8/30/2011 - 9:20am
We alll know of employers that hire & fire at will, in both large & small firms.  Just yesterday a friend told me of someone who was fired because, if kept on another day, they were eligible for benefits-then the company hired them back at the starting wage!

In this kind of economy workers have very little power.  Many work in fear. THank God for unions.
Anonymous | 8/29/2011 - 5:52pm
"If our system you better be happy or the boss can fire you for nearly everything except civil rights violations (and even there the complaint system is seriously backlogged).

Jeff:The labor movement was built with the secret ballot-even with all the corporate anti-unionism today workers vote for union affiliation more often than they vote against it.

Labor law is weak, however: weak penalties for mgt. engaging in unfair labor practices, lots of delays by clogging up the NLRB, & many times companies thwart the democractic process by dragging their heels on agreeing to a first contract. 

Don't you believe in the democratic workplace?"

I certainly do, Vince.  And I can assure you that as a lawyer who has represented small business owners in labor-related issues, I can assure you that those in need of greater democracy are NOT the unions!  Your statements certainly don't accord with my experience in these matters!  Firing a worker for nearly any reason is extremely difficult; it becomes exponentially difficult to do so to a public worker, particularly teachers.  But I guess all those rubber rooms incompetent NYC teachers are sent to sleep off their incompetency are are ficititious as the unions' objections to the secret ballot and compulsory dues in the name of democracy!
Vince Killoran | 8/29/2011 - 12:24pm
"Compulsoiry union dues"?  These occur after an election where the majority of the workforce vote to join a union. It's what we do in a democracy.

When you vote do you decide that the president, local council member, et al. aren't really your representative because you didn't like the outcome?  If you are in a unionized workplace and don't like the union then by all means campaign to de-certify the workplace.  No whinning or freeloading please.

The Church has long recognized the legitimacy of workplace democracy.
Anonymous | 8/29/2011 - 12:07pm
"Well, except that the contract is hammered out in collective bargaining sessions-sometimes with arbitration(which mgt. usually avoids)-and union members must approve the contract.  Plus, the union officials stand for election on a regular basis. 

Unions are a thousand times more democratic than the corporate hierarchy."

Oh right, I totally forgot that!  Those complusory union dues are the model of democracy in action!  Especially when they're collected by the state!
Vince Killoran | 8/29/2011 - 11:37am
''No union contract is subject to such oversight/scrutiny.''

Well, except that the contract is hammered out in collective bargaining sessions-sometimes with arbitration(which mgt. usually avoids)-and union members must approve the contract.  Plus, the union officials stand for election on a regular basis. 

Unions are a thousand times more democratic than the corporate hierarchy.
Anonymous | 8/29/2011 - 9:51am
"Just wondering why it is that conservative catholics are so quick to point out that unions have too much power and negotiate unfair compensation packages but are silent when it comes to the multi-million dollar packages corporate executives routinely award to themselves?  The process involved with awarding these executive compensation packages is far, far more 'intrincically linked to harmful outcomes' than the union negotiating process."

There is a HUGE difference between an executive's compensation package and a union-negotiated contract.  The difference is crucial: executive compensation is subject to shareholder approval/disapproval AND oversight of a corporation's board of directors.  Indeed a board can make a change in executive compensation very very quickly.  No union contract is subject to such oversight/scrutiny.  Not to say that all exec comp packages are fair or approriate, but there is an oversight process involved that is not present in the union context.
Vince Killoran | 8/28/2011 - 5:52pm
The statement is a good reminder that we have no institution like the labor union that delivers economic justice at the workplace.  Depending on the "free market" is foolhardy as is dependence on the benevolence of the boss.
Anonymous | 8/27/2011 - 10:15am
''Just wondering why it is that conservative catholics are so quick to point out that unions have too much power and negotiate unfair compensation packages but are silent when it comes to the multi-million dollar packages corporate executives routinely award to themselves?''
 
There is a book titled ''Money for Nothing'' about the corruption of corporate boards in the US and how they are affecting business negatively.  I suggest those who are pro business as I am find out about what it says.  I am not a fan of the large salaries that many CEO's get but I also know that one of the hardest job in the world is being a good manager.  A good one is worth a thousand workers in how he or she will affect the profitability of a company.  But they are rare and if you find one I have no problem with how much they should be paid.  How many would be upset if they learned that Steve Jobs made billions at Apple.  I certainly wouldn't.  And by the way Steve Jobs was a miserable failure at Apple at one time in the past.  Here is the link for ''Money for Nothing.''
 
http://www.amazon.com/Money-Nothing-Themselves-Bankrupting-America/dp/1416559930
 
I am just as eager to try to get rid of corporate malfeasance as I am public union malfeasance.  I personally think that bigness corrupts no matter what the organization is and the federal government is the main source of corruption in the country because it distributes so much money.  Any industry which lobbies is doing so because anti free market activities are going on and they are trying to stack the deck in their favor through legislative action or rule making.  
 
People think that because it is business that conservatives will automatically support it but in reality a lot of business in the world is not based on free enterprise but on rules set up in cooperation with the government to stack the decks in certain ways so that Corporation A has an advantage over Corporation B and the free market is not operating.  As these healthcare regulations and financial regulations get written in Washington these days, certain business will be winners and other businesses will be losers and it has nothing to do with what is best.  I suggest that those interested get a hold of ''Liberal Fascism'' by Jonah Goldberg.  In the book he does a number on the connections of big business with government over the years and it is not pretty.
 
 And before any liberals here get upset with the term, it was coined by an arch liberal and one time friend and adviser to FDR, HG Wells.
 
http://www.amazon.com/Liberal-Fascism-American-Mussolini-Politics/dp/0385511841/ref=sr_1_1?s=books&ie=UTF8&qid=1314453875&sr=1-1
 
Conservatives generally are interested in free enterprise and that is why they are anti public union and they should be anti a lot of big business too because they are not free enterprise at all.  There are a lot of questions that could be debated openly and add insight but I have seen few presented here.
Chris M. | 8/27/2011 - 8:54am
    Just wondering why it is that conservative catholics are so quick to point out that unions have too much power and negotiate unfair compensation packages but are silent when it comes to the multi-million dollar packages corporate executives routinely award to themselves?  The process involved with awarding these executive compensation packages is far, far more ''intrincically linked to harmful outcomes'' than the union negotiating process. 

    And where does the Vatican stand in the debate over the right of workers to form effective unions?  At one time they supported unions.  I seem to remember they took a very strong stand in support of shipyard workers in Poland.  But I haven't seen much since then.  Why not take a strong stand for union rights, both public and private, in America and elsewhere?  Stop looking at the polls and the declining percentage of workers in unions.  We have politicans and the media to do that.  We need a church that stands up for what is moral and right regardless of the polls.
PEACEMIKE | 8/27/2011 - 8:01am
Make that "fewer parishioners"...
Anonymous | 8/27/2011 - 7:05pm
''I would say such a wrongo weakens what ever you have to say''


Steve Jobs has made billions while at Apple.  He is the 43rd richest man in the US from his shares of Apple and Pixar.  My comment was  ''How many would be upset if they learned that Steve Jobs made billions at Apple.  I certainly wouldn't.''  My comment was factually correct.  He made billions while at Apple.  I thought I was praising Steve Jobs.  I guess I wasn't clear enough.  So that was not a ''wrongo'' comment. 


Steve Jobs was fired by the Apple board in 1985 and returned in 1997 when Apple bought Nextel.   Here is an article about Jobs' failure


http://www.nationalreview.com/articles/275528/steve-jobs-america-s-greatest-failure-nick-schulz# 


Jobs and Wozinak essentially invented the personal computer, had a head start on everyone, were in most schools in the 1980's with the Apple II computers.  But they never improved the product very much and as such never penetrated the business market very deeply.  So that means I was right twice about Jobs.  So two false ''wrongos.''


If you follow the logic of the Jesuits who taught me, they would say that making a mistake on one thing does not mean that you made a mistake on other things.  But since I didn't make a ''wrongo'' this time, we cannot use that logic.  I guess if I follow your logic I am to be trusted with what I say since I didn't make any ''wrongos.''  Thank you for the trust you are showing in what I say.
ed gleason | 8/27/2011 - 3:52pm
JR Cosgrove.. Steve Jobs' salary as CEO of Apple was 1$,   one buck a year. And your observation... 
 "And by the way Steve Jobs was a miserable failure at Apple at one time in the past."
yeah sure.. I would say such a wrongo weakens what ever you have to say... Did you ever read about A Bridge too Far? 
PEACEMIKE | 8/27/2011 - 7:59am
I have only one problem with the statement - but it's a big one.  The statement is six pages long.  Very few parishes will print such a long statement in their Sunday bulletins, and even few parishioners will read such a long statement.  Those of us who teach classes in universities at this time of year with courses that deal with Catholic Social Teaching might find the statement useful (I will), but otherwise I'm afraid it will go unnoticed by the great majority of the clergy and faithful of the American Church.

When will the USCCB staff learn to write for the people in the pews?  Short, sweet, and to the point!  Give the folks something to remember!
Anonymous | 8/26/2011 - 9:25pm
I have few comments.


1. A lot of Church thought is based on conditions arising out of the Industrial Revolution.  While large sections of the world still live in conditions that were present at that time and during the early part of the 20th century, the number of places in the United States where that is so is dwindling.  I know that there are very oppressive parts of the world that raises legitimate concerns but such conditions are not very prevalent in the US.



2. Any attempt to conflate industrial unions with public service and service unions is not appropriate especially public service unions at the state level and below.  There are often completely different issues involved and conditions in one are used to justify actions in the other.



3. I wonder what Bishop Blaire would say about California public service workers.  He must know first hand what they have done to California's economic system in the last 20 years.  The average pension for a retiring public service employee in California is now about $66,000 a year or more than the average family makes, $61,000, which often includes multiple earners.



4. George Will wrote a long editorial about public service service unions today in the Washington Post.



http://www.washingtonpost.com/opinions/liberals-wisconsin-waterloo/2011/08/23/gIQArm5GcJ_story.html 
Anonymous | 8/26/2011 - 6:53pm
This is the first really thorough attempt at addressing these issues and laying out how Catholic social teaching interacts with the labor question, and it should be taken seriously by all Catholics.  I must point out a couple tensions/criticisms about the Bishop's statement, however.  He writes:

"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."

I could not agree more with him.  However, his overall statement seems to miss a point that I think labor economists are increasingly pointing out: that the structural advantages organized labor has played in negotiations (at places like GM and in the public employee context, for examples) are intrinsically linked to harmful outcomes.  The Bishop makes it sound as though unfair compensation packages are the result of individual bad actors.  What is increasingly becoming clear is that there is an intrinsic link between the political and other structural advantages organized labor has exerted and these compensation packages that are harmful to the public fisc.  This is the point raised by many like Scott Walker who only want to re-calibrate the negotiation process.

I also find the statement lacking in that it does not address (to my reading) the extent of the right to organize.  In other words, it is clear (and everyone agrees) that labor should have a collective voice in compensation issues; but should unions, for example, have a 200 page contract stipulating on issues like the placement of bulletin boards and copy machines in classrooms?  What about teacher tenure - at least the process of removing tenured ineffective teachers, which is notoriously cumbersome and expensive and has a decided effect on educational outcomes, particularly among poor children in schools where most of these ineffective teachers are sent.  Are criticisms of these processes beyond the pale for Catholic social teaching?  In other words, no conservative that I know wants to strip collective bargaining and disband unions; it's just that many feel as though the balance of power is out of kilter and should be re-calibrated.

Far from closing the door on these issues (as I'm sure some will use this to proof-text the talking points of the Democratic Party), I think it raises various questions both sides can engage in constructively.