Happy Labor Day

In case your kids ask you what Labor Day is all about, here’s the great explanation of the relationship between the Catholic Church and unions found a few weeks back on the blog of retired Bishop John McCarthy, one of several posts discussing the history of the labor movement: 

The other day, in discussing the history of organized labor, I mentioned that one of the best assets that the union movement had in its organizing efforts was the active support of the Roman Catholic Church.

Why was that support so consistent? There are a number of reasons, one of which is that throughout the bible, both the Old and New Testament, there are endless references to God’s love for the poor and the need for people of means to be helpful and supportive of poor people. Jesus himself said that throughout his public life and throughout its history the Church put caring for the poor, the needy vulnerable at the top of its list of priorities.

With Leo XIII’s wonderful encyclical Rerum Novarum in 1891 both bishops and priests across the world were given a bright lit green light to step up on the side of working people. There were important scriptural and theological reasons for the Church’s stand but there are other down to earth reasons as well.

The Catholic Church in the 19th century was a Church of immigrants. Our people were all recent arrivals, mostly from European countries, and they could see that the individual worker was very vulnerable when it came to setting wages and working conditions. Only by being united could they struggle for their share of the economic pie. This means that the vast majority of priests grew up in working class families. They saw their fathers long work days and low pay, poor working conditions and no job security. When union organizers came around and offered them a possible solution to their many difficulties it was only natural that their fathers would join and these priests, when they were seminarians and then young priests, would see the advantage that the union movement brought to the hard working people of the country.

At this time, the majority of the priests have grown up in middle or upper-income families. They are not anti-union but they did not have the personal experience of being affected by the union movement. The small army of “labor priests” quietly passed on and has not been replaced. There have been recent efforts to rekindle an interest in organized labors efforts but, regretfully, they have not met with great success. Most of today’s union leaders have little or no experience of working with the churches. Over time there has been a gradual, unintentional separation, I feel that this is a great mistake; more accurately, a tragedy.

Today there is still a substantial amount of injustice and even oppression in the work place. Hi-tech employees are doing very well but tens of thousands of regular white collar employees learned how insecure their jobs were starting in 2008. Their jobs were simply eliminated overnight. But it is the low skills and the immigrant who is often the victim suffering most in the work place. WAGE THEFT is a major problem for low-income, unskilled, undocumented people who work hard and long hours, and frequently are paid below the minimum wage, cheated on the total amount owed and threatened with being reported to the Immigration and Naturalization Service. So their only choice is to take the inadequate pay and disappear.

These cruel oppressors of the poorest among us, however, are forewarned. Throughout the bible, Yahweh threatens the oppressors of the poor and especially those who deny them the fruit of their labor.

At Home with Our Faith is Claretian Publications’ print newsletter for parents on nurturing spirituality in the home. Winner of the 2012 Best in Class award from the Associated Church Press, as well as a First Place General Excellence award from the Catholic Press Association for the past three years running. Here’s a sample issue.

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3 Responses

  1. I have always enjoyed your articles but this piece is inappropriate. Encouraging people to be mindful of the needs of the poor is an entirely different matter than promoting Labor Unions. Labor Unions are the a primary reason that many people find themselves out of work because the demands of the labor unions and the costs of doing business in union environments has become prohibitive in a global economy. Also- are the labor union bosses that make a fortune so concerned about the poor and underserved that they would agree to give back or suspend their union dues?

    This is NOT what your organization should be promoting. I am inclined to remove my name from your mailing list.

  2. While it’s undeniable that some labor union bosses are crooked, the generalization made in the above comment indicates a lack of historical knowledge and perhaps an over fondness for “On The Waterfront.”
    Labor unions don’t harm workers and their competition in the global market of today’s world. Labor unions have achieved in the past and continue to maintain today: the 8-hour work day, the weekend, child labor laws, worker safety laws, and sick leave, for starters. Considering the immense power and resources of business, a lack of labor unions in today’s economy would leave the worker easy prey for unchecked corporate greed.
    The Catholic Church’s decision to stand with labor unions has allied it with the working class for over 100 years in the United States. Bishop John McCarthy recognizes the importance of the Church’s relationship with Labor Unions, as did Pope Leo XIII before him. Labor unions is exactly what At Home with our Faith, a Catholic newsletter, should be promoting.

  3. Using your publication to promote a labor union agenda is wrong. Labor Unions are at the root of why many jobs have been outsourced or lost to foreign competition. Look to the Car Industry…does that ring a bell? How about the Steel Industry? Here’s one for you…how about the state of the education system in our country…how many new energetic hopeful college graduates with teaching degrees can’t find jobs because the unions have created an environment that has protected poor teachers under tenure laws, and have set up unrealistic comp. plans that gives teachers pensions that far exceed what they have contributed, and benefit plans that have drained the districts budgets dry. Police and Fire….same situation with pension and benefits. These are all good and hard working people that deserve fair pay- fair benefits- but the union demands made the price tag too high. Do you think if we move away from the union model that all of a sudden Americans are going to start working 7 days a week with no holidays? Do you think that suddenly children are going to be forced to work. This is not the industrial revolution Mary.
    The Church promotes the idea of the dignity of all workers- and advocates for justice and compassion for the poor. The Church desires what is best for ALL workers- not just Union Workers.

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