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.”