US Catholic Faith in Real Life

Working for a living

Kevin Clarke | Print this pagePrint | Email this pageShare

As labor day draws nigh, it's no secret that this has proved a tough year for public sector workers. Teachers, janitors, streets and san, cops and firefighters have proved a wonderful punching bag for politicains eager to prove their bona fides on budget restraint. Teachers in particular, (yes, I'm thinking of you Gov. Christie), have taken a rhetorical hammering.

It's true that public sector workers have better benefits and pensions than most of us in the private sector receive—now, after years of determined whittling from our employers and years of decline in union membership among workers in the private sector. Maybe instead of resenting and admonishing our public sector peers, where the last union barricades remain at watch, us private sector guys might consider organizing ourselves and negotiating for, well, better pensions and benefits. Does anyone think it's a coincidence that the stagnation, then decline of middle/working class income and share of U.S. wealth neatly dovetaiks with the diminishing presence of organized labor in the private sector where now less than 7 percent of workers are unionized?

I don't.

Judging by the recent Labor Day statement from the USCCB, neither do the U.S. bishops. Over at NCR Father Richard McBrien found a lot to dislike in the annual letter (for instance, the bishops ignoring some of the glaring injustices to people who work for the church and not taking a stronger stand on the assault on collective bargaining rights for public sector workers.) But I think the statement this year was a welcome reminder of the church's support for organized labor and its esteem for the idea of workers organzing to seek justice and equity for themselves. The message also speaks to some contemporary concerns:

There have been some efforts, as part of broader disputes over state budgets, to remove or restrict the rights of workers to collective bargaining as well as limit the role of unions in the workplace. Bishops in Wisconsin, Ohio, and elsewhere have faithfully and carefully outlined Catholic teaching on worker rights, suggesting that difficult times should not lead us to ignore the legitimate rights of workers. Without endorsing every tactic of unions or every outcome of collective bargaining, the Church affirms the rights of workers in public and private employment to choose to come together to form and join unions, to bargain collectively, and to have an effective voice in the workplace..... Our Church continues to teach that unions remain an effective instrument to protect the dignity of work and the rights of workers. At their best, unions are important not just for the economic protections and benefits they can provide for their members, but especially for the voice and participation they can offer to workers. They are important not only for what they achieve for their members, but also for the contributions they make to the whole society.

I'd say the statement is also worth reading for Stockton, California Bishop Blaire's close to passionate call to get past the finger pointing and blaming and to restore some civlity and common good sense going forward for pete's sake:

We can understand and act like we are part of one economy, one nation, and one human family. We can acknowledge our responsibility for the ways--large or small--we contributed to this crisis. ... We can clearly respect the legitimacy and roles of others in economic life: business and labor, private enterprise and public institutions, for profit and non-profit, religious and academic, community and government. We can avoid challenging the motives of others. We can advocate our principles and priorities with conviction, integrity, civility, and respect for others. We can look for common ground and seek the common good....

I've spent a lot of the past few days being thankful for working people. Watching on the news as the much maligned public sector workers busted their butts and sometimes risked their lives in responding to the many crises engendered by dear Irene as she stormed through the eastern seaboard. After a large tree felled by Irene was our travel agent for a brief tour of the 19th century, I am also personally grateful to some working men from Con Edison and Verizon who arrived earlier than expected to return my family to the 21st century. The candlelight was nice, but internet access and hot showers are not too shabby either. Here's to those gentlemen enjoying a well-deserved rest this Labor Day and to all workers everywhere achieving a just wage and decent benefits and enough to bulid a future for their kids and with only the proper amount of misery and grumbling from their employers when they sit down at the negotiating table.

And here's to you, with blessings from above ...