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On Labor Day, families gather to mark the end of summer and the
beginning of a new school year. Many families use the long Labor Day
weekend to squeeze in the last picnic of summer. Backyard grills sizzle
with barbequed chicken as we serve up the last fruits of the growing
It is also a time to remind ourselves of the roots of the holiday and the importance of protecting workers' rights, especially low-wage workers. The low-wage workers who cleaned the chickens and picked the strawberries for our Labor Day feast probably cannot afford to purchase the fruits of their labors. Most agricultural workers like other low-wage workers—janitors, window washers, hotel housekeepers, and workers in health care and child care—have no pension other than social security and no health insurance.
For the past 100 years, modern labor unions have played a significant role in protecting workers' rights. Some Americans question whether workers still need to organize. They applaud the achievements of a movement such as Solidarity in Poland, but, ironically, fail to see a role for trade unions in our country.
Many migrant farmworkers lack not only a decent wage, health care, and retirement benefits, but some live in wretched housing, contend with dangerous machinery, handle hazardous farm chemicals, and work long hours. These seasonal crop workers- those who pick the strawberries, melons, apples, and other "picnic" delights—are especially vulnerable to exploitation because of their mobility and tough new immigration laws.
Monsignor George Higgins, a noted labor priest, was staying at a hotel when he asked the woman who cleaned his room how long she had worked there. "'Twenty years,' she said." He then asked her if she would mind telling him how much she earned. "'Minimum wage,' was her reply." Monsignor Higgins goes on to say, "1 am often asked 'why are unions needed in this day and age?' People should not ask me. They should ask that maid and other low-wage workers."
The church supports the right of workers to form unions or other associations as a specific application of the human right to associate. Workers, particularly migrant agricultural workers, have the right to organize and bargain collectively to secure fair wages and working conditions. In the words of Pope John Paul II, "The experience of history teaches that organizations of this type are an indispensable element of social life, especially in modern industrialized societies.
But unions, like employers, have duties to the larger society. Just as our Catholic teaching demands that employers treat their employees with dignity and respect, so it demands that unions be about more than just economic gain for their members. Workers also must contribute to the common good by seeking excellence in production and service. Catholic teaching challenges them to see their work as part of their Christian vocation to transform the world in the light of the Gospel.
While unions should defend the wages and benefits of their membership, they also have the obligation to empower workers to take an active role in the society and the larger community. "Workers must use their collective power to contribute to the wellbeing of the whole community and should avoid pressing demands whose fulfillment would damage the common good and the rights of more vulnerable members of society."
This year, after the Labor Day picnic, take time to say a prayer for the low-wage workers who provide our food. Many of them work long hours, in horrible working conditions, for meager wages. Pray for the workers who still don't have a forty-hour work week, safe and sanitary shops, or the chance to make a decent living for their families; remember the workers confronting firing, intimidation, delays, replacement, and bad faith when they try to organize to defend their rights. But recognize the contributions of those employers whose initiative and investment create decent jobs at decent wages, who treat their workers as partners and who help build the economic health and vitality of the community.
Over ten years ago, the U.S. Bishops' pastoral letter on the economy, Economic Justice For All, called for a new American experiment: "new forms of cooperation and partnership among those whose daily work is the source of the prosperity and justice of the nation." This Labor Day, I call on workers and employers, unions and corporations to work together more creatively to increase productivity, to enhance job security, to share economic rewards, to compete in a global marketplace, and to contribute to the common good of our society.
Labor Day should be more than a shopping day or time for back to school sales. It should be a time to review why the Church has stood with workers in their struggle for justice. Each of us has a responsibility to make this economy work for everyone: employers, workers, shareholders, union members, consumers. As followers of Jesus Christ we are called to measure our economy, not only by what it produces, but how it touches human life, whether it protects human dignity and strengthens family Iife.
George G. Higgins, Organized Labor and the Church: Reflections of a
'Labor Priest ", with William Bole (Paulist Press, 1993), p. 181
2.National Conference of Catholic Bishops, Economic Justice for All, Washington, D.C., 1986, no. 104
3. Pope John Paul II, On Human Work, no. 20
4.EJA, no. 106
5.EJA, no. 102
6.EJA, no. 304
7.EJA, no. 106
8.Commission on the Future of Worker-Management Relations, Fact Finding Report, Washington D.C. 1994, pp. 68-74
9.EJA, no. 296
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