Human Costs and Moral Challenges of a Broken Economy

The USCCB Labor Day statement, as usual, makes for excellent reading and reflection on this holiday – even in the absence of the keen analysis of Monsignor Higgins. Rightly, the primary focus of “Human Costs and Moral Challenges of a Broken Economy” is on the workers whose lives have been turned upside down by the economic crisis – the many people who have lost homes and jobs, often because of decisions made by political and business leaders far away. “These realities,” Bishop Stephen Blaire reminds us, “are at the heart of the Church’s concerns and prayers on this Labor Day. As the Second Vatican Council insisted, the ‘grief and anguish’ of the people of our time, "especially of those who are poor or afflicted in any way . . . are the grief and anguish of the followers of Christ as well" (Gaudium et Spes, no. 1).

The letter also attempts to clarify the Church’s attitude toward organized labor with an eye toward recent public policy disputes. Political efforts to restrict trade unions and collective bargaining, in both the public and private sector, seem to have called forth an echo among a portion of the faithful. These Catholic critics of trade unionism contend that unions kill jobs or suppress economic growth; that the economic demands of union workers are selfish and unjust; and that trade unions help to advance social causes that the Church opposes. Therefore, they conclude, the traditional defense of organized labor in Catholic Social Teaching is inoperative.


One can find examples of trade unions exhibiting each of those faults (though rather less often than the breathless blogosphere might lead you to believe). But the conclusion does not follow from the premises. “Our Church continues to teach that unions remain an effective instrument to protect the dignity of work and the rights of workers,” Blaire explains. “The teaching that workers have the right to choose freely to form and belong to unions and other associations without interference or intimidation is strong and consistent.”

The bishop notes, “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. The Church has urged leaders of the labor movement to avoid the temptations of excessive partisanship and the pursuit of only narrow interests. Workers and their unions, as well as employers and their businesses, all have responsibility to seek the common good, not just their own economic, political, or institutional interests.”

Bishop Blaire acknowledges that “some unions in some places have taken 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.” He does not conclude from this, though, that such unions forfeit their social role and rights. “Leaders of the Church and the labor movement cannot avoid these differences, but should address them in principled, respectful and candid dialogue. This should not keep us from working on our own and together to advance common priorities of protecting worker rights, economic and social justice, overcoming poverty, and creating economic opportunity for all.”

Comments are automatically closed two weeks after an article's initial publication. See our comments policy for more.
ed gleason
7 years 6 months ago
In Philly today the Catholic HS teachers walked out of 17 Archdiocesan HS, not over wages but union busting 'we want to hire part time teachers'. Another union demand is that they get preferential hiring at another HS  if a school closes... even pagans would honor that. It was an almost unanimous union vote..[even in unemployment times] The above anti-union posters would laugh at the Archdiocesan salary range, $50,500 after 20 years. The good news is that the above posters would never make good union men. The would not know the meaning of solidarity and if explained,  it would not take.  
The nerve to post that  'government workers who average well over 6 figures.'
Even tea party wackos would not make that claim. 

Hope one  question tonight for the GOP candies will be' If capital gains and dividends tax goes to zero, as you propose, who here will step and tell the working slobs that the super rich will then pay nothing, nada..will be tax free forever..?'  
7 years 6 months ago
From the internet

''The U.S. Government is the largest employer in the United States, hiring about 2.0 percent of the nation's work force and the workforce is expanding significantly due to health care reform, in-sourcing, and many new regulatory programs. Federal government jobs can be found in every state and large metropolitan area, including overseas in over 200 countries.The average annual federal workers compensation, including pay plus benefits, now exceeds $123,049 compared to just $61,051 for the private sector according to the United States Bureau of Economic Analysis.''

I do not know how accurate this is.  I found it at

C Walter Mattingly
7 years 6 months ago
Here's the verification from Rick Owens of the Postal Employee Network, who is defending postal worker compensation, under the title "Postal or Federal Pay and Benefits: Just Who is Overpaid," March, 2010: "Yes, with benefits postal workers make around $83,000 a year...." From there he goes on to point out that federal government workers make $120K (as JR points out above), so why point out postal workers? He has a point, I guess; he is claiming that other federal union employees  are gouging the taxpayer even more successfully. But I thought you might want to get your facts straight, for as you point out it is difficult to dialogue with someone who has his facts wrong. 
While getting your facts straight, you might also consider bit more carefully. Nowhere did I imply that some workers don't need more money. A negative income tax provides money to those workers. I doubt that they would consider that money funny. And of course your assertion is to blame for the working poor? No, my assertion is that the excessive compensation of federal employees, negotiated by self-interested union, often corporate monopolies, has and is contributing greatly to the deficit and economic difficulties the country is experiencing by providing expensive but lousy public education and bloated state and federal payrolls, which fortunately many governors and mayors are now successfully addressing, the union juggernaut and their moneybags notwithstanding.
7 years 6 months ago
''your quote is from an ad for a profit making company that promises a gov job''
So does that make it wroing?  No!  I checked other sources and the number of over $120 k is correct.  It does not include contract workers who are not considered government employees.  It also does not include the military which I am sure would lower it but the 2 million non military workers for the federal government. 
 ''Why do you concentrate on Tea Party issues when the GOP wants the super rich to be tax free?''
I am not sure what this is supposed to be asking.  A lot of things are tied together in the over spending problem and the budget.  I support the Tea Party very strongly and have followed them closely via a web sites that analyzes what they do and the objections to them.  So I know a fair amount about them and most of what is presented here and in the MSM is very distorted to make them look bad when they are nearly all good honorable people.  I find the obvious attempts to smear them to be one of the interesting aspects of people's reactions to them interesting.  Authors on this site try to do it without knowing anything about them except what liberal web sites tell them.
The question of taxing the rich is an intricate question.  If someone has a large amount of money and one wanted that money used wisely to promote the common good, how would one best do it.  Part of it should go to projects that would help the common good but definitely not most of it and a question is why does anyone have a say in how others use their money.  The money does not sit idly somewhere but is invested and hopefully the common good is raised by these investments though there are obvious examples when it isn't.  Most of the time the ''super rich'' will use their money wisely and invest it and therefore this ends up hopefully providing something for the common good, mainly by providing jobs and services that others can enjoy.  If the money goest to the government, then some bureaucrat or politician will decide who gets the money and more than likely the deciding factor will be will the person getting the money vote for me to stay in office and not whether this will help the people in general.  The federal government has a horrible track record of using money and essentially just redistributes it without building anything of note.  There are some minor exceptions but that is the general approach.
If you want to debate that then go ahead, but to just blithely say that zero percent tax is useless is ill informed and besides that is not what is being proposed even though some people keep repeating this nonsense.  I am sure some would want zero percent tax on the capital gains or dividends and use the argument that the money has already been taxed once to argue no additional taxes should be levied.  Essentially the Democrats just want to take money from people who do not vote for them and give it to people who will vote for them.  They have been doing that since FDR started handing out the pork to buy elections in the 1930's.  Some people are disgusted with this form of bribery.
I received an email recently from someone describing their frustration about getting government aid for homeless veterans and this person was describing his friend who couldn't get the money but will probably be the next senator from a Democratic state.  He pointed out that some Democrat congressman was able to get 500K for restoration of a covered bridge.  This was in Jack Murtha's old district to indicate the speciousness on how money is spent.  This is just one small incident but is indicative of the corruption in government spending.  So taking someone's money and giving it to the government is usually an inefficient use of the money.
Vince Killoran
7 years 6 months ago
Oh, so now it's postal workers' compensation and not salary/pay. It's a misleading to pass it off as "pay" at least in the way most people discuss it. I make in the high $70s but my employer tells me that my "total compensation" is around $110k. Big deal.  Without breaking it down that figure doesn't mean much (e.g., they tell me that my health insurance cost them $12k/p.a. but I am on my wife's policy). In any case, I have no trouble with a postal workers's salary range being $37-$63k plus benefits.  Sounds reasonably middle-class (and barely that at the lower end).

I DO have a problem with the lack of good jobs and that should concern you as well. Why embrace the race to the bottom. Helen's (#14) last line is powerful: "It is not the job of humans to produce the poor."

On the larger issue of federal employees, the ones I live around are white collar, professionals. I think one works at the NIH and the other at the EPA. I've known a few that have left  to work in the much more lucrative private sector (never the other way around!). Are they overpaid? I've never thought they were but Fox News has been telling us they are. There's some doubt to that claim, however ( In any case, federal workers by and large can't engage in CB so this isn't an issue about unions per se.
C Walter Mattingly
7 years 6 months ago
JR, good post. I don't consider that unions were "broken" in Wisconsin, just a balance restored.
Ed, the postal workers trying to minimize their compensation in the above quote certainly consider benefits part of their pay. And well they might. It is better than more money, as it is part of the tax avoidance strategies unions have promoted to avoid paying taxes on their compensation. And they've done a great job at it. You may recall even President Obama, who was largely bought, paid, and delivered by the unions, tried to limit the huge tax breaks to help finance health care for the indigent by limiting tax benefits on what he called "Cadillac health benefits," but the unions slapped him down.
Like you, I'd like to see the person who cooks your fries make 100K a year, but this is the real world. Therefore he makes what his contribution is truthfully worth, what society determines his service is worth. From there it is up to the worker to increase his skills and make his service more valuable. (If his good effort is inadequate for the most basic necessities of living, one answer would be a negative income tax.)
And so it is for the postal workers. If their contribution is worth 83K as the free market determines, which we can compare to what Fedex and UPS employees make for comparable services, then welcome to it. If on the other hand it is an overcompensation, then the inefficiencies will eventually impact the finances of the postal service and it will run into financial difficulties, while Fedex and UPS will remain viable. Sound timely to our current reality?
I tend to agree with you that the federal pay problem is not rampant at the top end of the workforce. It is the vastly larger and more costly areas of federal employment in the middle and lower categories where the imbalance primarily exists and causes the huge drain on the economy.

7 years 6 months ago
When unions were strong we had a middle class. Since they were weakened we've gone a long way toward (sorry, Prof. Hayek) serfdom.
 One more thing that struck me about Bisop Blaire's analysis: With all the problems we have, he still had space and thought for the problems of the rest of the world. That passage makes his piece clearly catholic and Catholic.
7 years 6 months ago
 “Our Church continues to teach that unions remain an effective instrument to protect the dignity of work and the rights of workers,” Blaire explains. “The teaching that workers have the right to choose freely to form and belong to unions and other associations without interference or intimidation is strong and consistent.”

I agree with this statement 100%.  Unfortunately the intimidation comes predominantly from Labor Unions.  Many employees are no longer free to work in certain industries unless they become members of a union.  Often these unions take immoral stances.  The employees are intimidated to go along with the union lest they get the wrath of Labor against them.

One suspects that Labor knows that if employees were truly free, Unions would fade away in the modern era.  Unions certainly are a "right" of the worker but they are not mandatory for a worker who chooses freely to do with out.
7 years 6 months ago
The "new circumstances" have included frontal asaults on collective bargaining rights, increasing disparity between rich nad poor, increased child poverty, all of which I guess is supported by the "new thinking" of SuperPACS big money.
This is how far we are removed from  the "nostalgia" of traditional Catholic support for workers.
IMO there is little hope in these days of partisanship and shoddy spin to improve things.
James Collins
7 years 6 months ago
You note that union workers are affected by the decisions of politicians and business leaders. You neglect that they are also affected, often to theior detriment by the decisions of union bosses who put their interests ahead of their members. Workers have a right to join a union. agreed. They have also a right not to join a union and that right is denied them. They also have a right to subsidarity and a voice in how their dues are spent. Your editorial is consistent only with the positions of the union bosses and the Democratic party. You are way too obvious.
7 years 6 months ago
"Your editorial is consistent only with the positions of the union bosses and the Democratic party. You are way too obvious."

It is consistent with the  social teaching of the Church, which it quotes. It is not consistent, maybe, with what some "boomers and yuppies" heard on the radio. By the way, a new book shows Joe Hill was innocent!
7 years 6 months ago
No one has argued, and not one single piece of legislation has been introduced, debated, or voted on, that would simply deny the rights of workers to organize.  Instead, some of us feel, and have elected political representatives who feel, as though in changed circumstances, the traditional power of unions needs to be tweaked.  I'm sorry, but the evidence does not bear out the contention that compensation packages that are harmful to the common good are simply isolated acts of selfishness.  For years, public unions have poured MILLIONS of dollars into electing candidates that then turn around and "negotiate" cushy contracts with the very people who donated to them.  And what do we have to show for it - I suggest we look at our public schools.  If that were the Koch Brothers pouring money into the system, I can imagine the editorials here!  Changed circumstances call for changed structures to ensure fairness and sound decision-making; Church teaching ought to also reflect on the changed circumstances of labor - at least that what my liberal Catholic friends are always telling me!
Vince Killoran
7 years 6 months ago
"No one has argued, and not one single piece of legislation has been introduced, debated, or voted on, that would simply deny the rights of workers to organize."

Once again Jeff you are incorrect on the basic facts.  Virginia and North Carolina actually ban public sector unions; many states-e.g., Wisc. & Indiana-have placed such severe limitations as to make CB meaningless.

You're right about one thing:  "Church teaching ought to also reflect on the changed circumstances of labor."   With rising economic inequality, sweatshop labor, and the attack on the fundamental right to bargain collectively, Church officials should be speaking even louder, and with greater resources, in defense of unions. 
7 years 6 months ago
I've never been happier to be wrong about something than I am to learn that VA and NC ban public sector unions.

As for Wisconsin and Indiana, I didn't realize that allowing unions to collectively bargain over wages and compensation was as "meaningless" as you suggest it is; most people I know care a great deal about how much they get paid and what their benefits are.  Not so much details about the placements of bulletin boards and copy machines.
Vince Killoran
7 years 6 months ago
Given the frequency of your incorrect statements you must be an very happy person indeed.  At least your latest post is more forthright.

That is until I read your "tweaking" argument.  By taking away CB rights to negotiate over benefits and working conditions, and limiting pay increases to the rate of inflation, the Repubs did much more that "tweak." 

Beyond the rote calls for Catholic social doctrine to jump on the anti-union bandwagon can you engage in the many documents (and scripture) in defense of labor unions?

7 years 6 months ago
For a different message than Mr. Sinyai's on labor day from someone who is a past union member and part of a family of union members.

 And what is the cause of our broken economy.  It is certainly not anything that making unions stronger will fix.  The Wisconsin experience indicates it can be helped by breaking unions where they are dysfunctional.  And we should support them where they are functional, but I am not sure how many places that is true today in the US.
C Walter Mattingly
7 years 6 months ago
From President Roosevelt to President Obama there has been a reasonably consistent line of arguing and practice against collective bargaining rights for federal public service employees, from FDR's statement that he did not think CB rights should be "transplanted" from the private to the public sector, to President Obama, who one-upped Governor Walker recently by not limiting wage increases over the next years as Walker proposed, but by freezing their pay and eliminating increases for two years. They had no CB rights, and President Obama acted upon this fact and unilaterally cut them out. Of course there is perhaps a touch of hypocrisy between the president's words and actions based on denying collective bargaining rights to federal employees in contrast to Gov Walker's more candid and honest words on the subject. But we shouldn't give Governors Christie, Walker, and Daniels all the credit for halting this attack upon the state and municipal treasuries. Hats off to Chicago's new Mayor Rahm Emanuel and Gov Cuomo for cutting off these self-interested quasi-monopolistic corporations known as unions and their purchased Corzines, etc, who have been very successful at feasting at the taxpayers' expense for some time.Emanuel, unlike President Obama, showed no hypocrisy as he stated he is obligated to the taxpayers, not the unions. Now on this Labor Day, the great majority of taxpayers, laborers themselves but not union members nor subjects of the union-bought legislative pork machine, can take hope and solace that the days of feeding this pork barrel duopoly are finally coming to an end, hopefully before another great corporation such as GM is bankrupted and our schools drop from the 3rd to the 4th quartile. Better late than never. 
Helen Deines
7 years 6 months ago
It's always interesting to me, how in the world of blogging those who sound pretty well educated feel free to bash the world of organized labor.

I wonder what the conversation would be like if the people writing were hotel maids who, at least in Louisville, are paid by the room (approximately $2.75 per room).  If the hotel is full as at Derby time, the maid makes a good living.  If only a few rooms are occupied, she goes home with only enough money for milk and crackers for her children.

Or perhaps the backside workers at the horse racing track should be blogging-they don't have a union, either.  They sleep with their horses.  Our parish collects blankets and pillows, brings out a bus fitted as a preschool for their children, supports a chaplaincy, buys pizza. 

Now the security guards could tell an interesting story-outsourced when a major employer ran low on funds.  Many were long term employees who were terminated, lost their health insturance and retirement, and referred to the company that won the outsourcing contract.  Now they work for minimum wage, no benefits, and pay for their own uniforms.

My father was a union organizer "in the day."  The greed I see around me reminds me that the Lord hears the cry of the poor.  It is not the job of humans to produce the poor.
C Walter Mattingly
7 years 6 months ago
The unions of "back in the day" bear scant resemblance to the self-interested, powerful, corporate monopolies many unions are today. They are better known as city, state, and company destruction mechanisms.  Excessive union power contributed immensely to taking down the greatest manufacturing company in the world and leaving it bankrupt, with Michigan and Detroit in tow. The most distinguished union education leader of his time, Al Shankar, actually stated publicly, "when school children start paying union dues, that's when I'll start representing the interests of school children." And school unions lived up to his concern for children, forbidding a good newer teacher from being retained for a poor senior one, forbidding any sort of teacher evaluations for decades, providing us with the fewest school days in the year of any major industrial country, while our education system became exhorbitatnly expensive and produced increasingly poor results. Do you want more of that for your children, your community?
A negative income tax would assist the struggling maids you mention in hard times; those hard times are being fomented partly by postal workers who average $84K a year and government workers who average well over 6 figures. 
I hope that good teachers, for example, realize what their union leaders have done to their reputation, seriously damaging their professional image, and make the needed changes. If they don't, the Emanuels and Cuomos and Christies and Walkers and Rhees will make them for them, supported by an increasingly aware citizenry. 
Vince Killoran
7 years 6 months ago
It's difficult to engage in a sustained debate with Walter, Jeff, et al. when they consistently cite incorrect facts & figures, all in the service of raw anti-unionism. After so many of these their credibility wears thin.

it was Jeff's turn yesterday; today it is Walter's: the pay range of a US Postal Worker is $37k-$63K ( The average is somewhere in the mid-$40s.

To Walter goes the silliest suggestion of the day as well, i.e, that the working poor don't need the higher wages, benefits, and workplace democracy that unions bring; rather, the negative income tax will solve their problems.  The bonus laugh is his assertation that your local letter carrier is to blame for the existence of the working poor!
ed gleason
7 years 6 months ago
JR your quote is from an ad for a profit making company that promises a gov job .. schools etc.
83,000 is closer and it's counting mostly white collar feds and  the 100,000 thousands of overseas contractors that were hired by the GOP outsourcing geniuses. You know about the 100,000 a year  gunnies that protect the Afghan pols. There are more of these contractors in Afghanistan than troops.
Why do you concentrate on Tea Party issues when the GOP wants the super rich to be tax free?
7 years 6 months ago
It is interesting to see which of the special interests are shacking up with the fat cats in Washington.

I have nothing against collective bargaining but that implies that someone is an advocate for the voter/people/consumer and someone is an advocate for the worker.  We all know that the union takes the side of the worker.  This list would indicate that we cannot trust our public officials to take the side of the people in collective bargaining negotiations.
7 years 6 months ago
To show what the issues were in Wisconsin, here is an analysis of what the unions extracted from the public without the public ever knowing it.  It was a very lucrative deal for the teachers.

These benefits are real costs that must be paid and put aside by the state or local county, school district or municipality.  To pass them off as not pay or salary is absurd.  The sweetheart deal was broken by the legislature after the election and now a lot of these benefits are paid by the employee instead of getting a freebee.  Essentially the school teachers took a 10% pay cut.  On top of this the union required health plan now cost 20% less as the union required plan has to compete with other health insurance plans.  All this corruption was going into the coffers of one political party.

Yes, unions can be very dysfunctional and a lot of our financial problems can be laid at their feet.  This is not to say that unions have not in the past or are not currently providing positive outcomes for workers but net, net they have become a negative in a lot of areas.  The Wisconsin experience seems to be showing how breaking them can lead to job creation while still providing the workers with very good salaries.  Rhode Island is another state that has been almost bankrupted by the public service unions.  The real prize is to break the California unions but their power has a much more of a strangle hold on the legislature than most other states.  But even there the corruption is getting noticed by more and more as the egregious salaries and benefits are taking a bigger and bigger bite out of the budget each year while it has the second highest unemployment rate in the country.  Here is a prima facie case of where the unions are creating the poor but yet the bishops defend them.  Strange bedfellows.
Vince Killoran
7 years 6 months ago
There is no "free market" and there never has been. It's a utopian dream, more of a nightmare really.  We have, however, had "cowboy capitalism" and "crony capitialism" to varying degrees.

Since you do not provide any actual facts to back up your claim about the "middle and lower categories" of federal workers it's difficult to comment.


The latest from america

Democratic presidential candidate Sen. Elizabeth Warren, D-Mass., shakes hands with Alabama State Sen. Henry Sanders at the Brown Chapel AME Church in Selma, Ala., on March 19. (Jake Crandall/The Montgomery Advertiser via AP)
Pete Buttigieg, the mayor of South Bend, Ind., responded to a question about his religious views by talking about his own faith and what he sees as a distortion of Christianity among U.S. conservatives.
Since retiring from my job, my husband has found me irritating. We had a talk (after fighting), and he is right: I am mothering him. Smothering him. “I have a mother,” he said. “I want a wife, a partner, a best friend.”
Valerie SchultzMarch 25, 2019
Jesus asks us to be generous with the poor. It’s one of the foundations of his public ministry: caring for the poor himself and asking his disciples to do so.
James Martin, S.J.March 25, 2019
We are invited, today, to listen—and as the psalmist today colorfully puts it, God has even done us the courtesy of digging out our ears so that we can hear.