Unions called to prophetic role
The Catholic Church has a rich tradition of social doctrine on labor and work, a history of papal encyclicals, pastoral letters and other teaching documents affirming a worker’s right to a living, family-supporting wage, working conditions that respect human dignity, and the right to form trade unions. As part of this tradition, each year the Chairman of the US Conference of Catholic Bishops’ Committee on Domestic Justice and Human Development issues a Labor Day statement on behalf of the bishops, reflecting on worker justice and the signs of the times.
This year Bishop Dewane of Venice, Florida, begins by observing that “This Labor Day, we find ourselves at a time of kairos, a moment of crisis as well as opportunity.” The bishop notes that technological advance and economic growth seems to be growing hand in hand with economic inequality.
Study after study shows that the economy is growing and unemployment is declining—but wages remain stagnant or are decreasing for the vast majority of people, while a smaller percentage collect the new wealth being generated… Leaders in business and government must revisit, therefore, the Church’s moral framework on balancing the legitimate role of profit in a business and the moral obligations to pay a just wage… When a parent—working full time, or even working multiple jobs beyond standard working hours—cannot bring his or her family out of poverty, something is terribly wrong with how we value the work of a person.
Unions have an important part to play in this enterprise as well. Reflecting on Pope Francis’ much-reported remarks to Italian trade unionists this June, he said that unions were called to be prophets and innovators.
The Pope laid out two “epochal challenges” that unions must face in the world today. First, he explained that unions must retain and recover their prophetic voice… The union is “born and reborn” whenever it “gives a voice to those who have none, denounces those who would ‘sell the needy for a pair of sandals’ (cf. Amos 2:6), unmasks the powerful who trample the rights of the most vulnerable workers, defends the cause of the foreigner, the least, the discarded… The second challenge is “innovation”: although the union must watch over those within its care, it must also work for those outside its walls in order to innovate and protect those “who do not yet have rights.” Unions are especially valuable when they speak on behalf of the poor, the immigrant, and the person returning from prison.
We in the Catholic Labor Network pray that all of us in the labor movement take up these “epochal challenges” named by the Holy Father – and that all Christians join in the effort to reduce economic inequality and ensure jobs at just wages for all.
CLICK HERE to read the bishops’ 2017 Labor Day Statement in its entirety.