More than 12 million Americans are looking for work these days, and last week the U.S. bishops called attention to the tough economic reality faced by many Americans. In a statement, “Placing Work and Workers at the Center of Economic Life”  Bishop Stephen E. Blaire of Stockton, chairman of the bishops’ Committee on Domestic Justice and Human Development , called on Americans and American institutions to work toward fixing the broken systems that keeps so many in poverty. The statement highlighted the connection between unemployment or underemployment and poverty in the United States. It also stated that the high number of individuals and families in poverty in the United States represents a “moral failure” and that collaboration at every level of society is necessary to avoid exploitation of workers. It also singled out the “unique and essential responsibility” of labor unions, but warned that “some union actions 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.” The statement also drew attention to the responsibility of political candidates and elected officials to end poverty, noting that their “relative silence…on the moral imperative to resist and overcome poverty is both ominous and disheartening.”
Sharon Daly, former director of the Domestic Social Development Office at the U.S.C.C.B., said that her feelings toward the statement as a whole are very positive. She praised its emphasis on the church’s teaching on economic justice and on the link between poverty and unemployment.
“The depth of poverty in the U.S. is really shocking and probably the worst it has been in my adult life,” Daly said. “I think it’s wonderful that the bishops’ statement calls attention to this and links it to lack of jobs—decent jobs with wages that can support a family and offer benefits—because that is the single most import factor. It points out that the economy should be designed and judged by its impact on working and poor people, as well as the common good.”
However, Daly said she was surprised that labor unions were the only group called to account by the bishops. “There are many factors that have contributed to this worldwide recession or depression, but it’s not the teachers’ union or the firefighter or police unions that have caused this incredible economic crash worldwide,” Daly said. “If the bishops’ statement is going to single out unions as contributing to the problem, it’s very unfair if they don’t also mention mortgage companies, investment bankers and broker-dealers.” These groups, Daly pointed out, have committed fraud and abuse and contributed to the bankruptcy of cities and towns that invested pension plans with such firms. “The bishops’ complain of unions pursing narrow self interest and ignoring the common good,” she said, “But none of these other major organizations are working toward that.”
It is the job of unions to defend workers, Daly says, adding that many are not as strong as they used to be. The percent of workers that are unionized has declined every year for the past two decades, and several court cases have limited the impact they can have on their members. This, she points out, comes in contrast to the Supreme Court’s decision not to limit corporate spending.
Daly said that the church ought to reach out to the labor movements and asking them what they think could be done for workers. “In some places the church has resisted union efforts, so sometimes the relationship is strained,” she said. “But what Catholic teaching says we should do is reach out to those who are struggling and see what we can do together.”
Alex Mikulich, Research Fellow at the Jesuit Social Research Institute at Loyola University in New Orleans, agreed that the bishops’ statement is, at its core, a positive document. “It rightly calls for the establishment of economic justice and ending barriers to employment and a living wage,” he said. “It rightly calls both dominant national political parties to address workers rights, joblessness, and poverty.”
However, Mikulich said via e-mail that the statement is, at times, too abstract, and believes what is missing from the statement is “highly significant.” He said “the document largely lacks significant practical challenge to lay Catholics to pay a price for economic and racial justice.” Drawing inspiration from Thomas Merton's “Letters to a White Liberal” Mikulich noted Merton’s belief that “change meant that whites would have to relinquish significant benefits and change our way of living.” Today, Mikulich hopes that the bishops will do more to witness to this challenge. “In that regard, the document falls flat especially for those most negatively impacted by economic injustice,” he said.
Mikulich’s concerns extend beyond this particular document. He argued that the bishops must do more to change the framework of the larger conversation about race and economic justice in the United States. He said “the entire debate is being waged within a narrow white racial frame that does not acknowledge enduring historic and structural racial inequalities” such as “the multiple ways the economic system benefits white disproportionately while people of color carry disproportionate burdens” as well as the way “the current election and system works to divide workers along racial and class lines.”
One possible forum for such discussions and educational efforts is the new site, povertyusa.org , which is sponsored by the U.S.C.C.B. and the Catholic Campaign for Human Development , and which offers statistics, stories and educational materials about the more than 46 million Americans living in poverty.
Mikulich said he hopes that, in the future, the bishops will also “highlight ways that workers are practicing subsidiarity and solidarity through worker cooperatives,” given the growth in worker-owned enterprises. He hopes the bishops will draw attention to such alternatives, which he believes demonstrate “care for workers and the earth and really point to the Giftedness of God's creation, as Pope Benedict has rightly highlighted.”