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Why the Catholic Church Must Defend Workers’ Rights

John J. Sweeney

John Sweeney attends a speech by AFL-CIO President Richard Trumka at the National Press Club on May 20, 2011, in Washington, D.C.

Earlier this month, former AFL-CIO President John J. Sweeney delivered a speech at Catholic University America in celebration of Rerum Novarum, the revolutionary pro-union encyclical issued by Pope Leo XIII 120 years ago. In it, he tells how Rerum Novarum impacted his family and the lives of millions of immigrant workers, and challenges the Church to renew its unequivocal support for the freedom of workers to join and form unions. What follows is an edited version of the speech.

I grew up in The Bronx, had the callouses on my knees developed at Cardinal Clemmons High School, the edges on my soul sharpened by the Jesuit brothers at Iona College, and my brain wired into my heart by Frs. Philip Carey and John M. Corridan at the old Xavier Labor School I Manhattan.

My parents were Irish immigrants who came to this country confident that America was the right place to start a family in the middle of the greatest financial collapse the world had ever known.

My mother was a domestic worker. She worked at the pleasure of her wealthy employers with no healthcare or pension, no paid time off, no job security. Her pay was nowhere near enough to support a family. Fortunately, my father got a job as a New York City bus driver and he had a union, a terrific union, Local 100 of the Transport Workers.

He could have been an isolated immigrant worker, struggling alone against a demanding employer and discrimination. But he wasn’t alone; he was part of a community of workers who used the strength of their numbers to fight for their rights and benefits. As a group, they were able to bargain successfully for a livable wage, health insurance and pensions. Working together, my parents were able to help their children go to college and into productive lives.

Sound familiar? The fate of my family was proscribed by Rerum Novarum, which was and is explicit not only in insisting on the rights of workers to join and form unions, but in proclaiming the value of unions in guaranteeing a just and equitable society.

No wonder that in my home we valued three things — our family, our church and my dad’s union. We knew that without our family, there would be no love. Without our faith, there would be no redemption. And without Local 100, there would be no food on the table.

Rerum Novarum built the bridge connecting those values and molding them into what Cardinal Peter Turkson recently called a brilliant first chapter of the ongoing book called Catholic Social Teaching, which all of us are still engaged in writing.”

In the 20th century, the Church shored up the bridge through a succession of papal encyclicals and other church teachings, including the important writings of our two most recent popes, Benedict and John Paul II. Millions of Catholic workers and their families crossed that bridge, and in doing so, took a mighty hand in building progressive democracies and stronger and more equitable economies throughout the world.

Unjust inequalities

So here we are at the dawning of the 21st century, and we are reported to have overcome the Social Darwinism that dominated the 19th century and led Leo XIII to write his revolutionary encyclical.

If it is true that we’ve succeeded, then Fr. Cletus Kiley must have been mistaken or overly excited when he addressed our Building and Construction Trades Department Legislative Conference last month.

In his invocation, he condemned the Wall Street Gamblers” who crippled our economy, took obscene bonuses, tried to blame unions and the middle class, blamed the immigrants, then demonized our public sector unions. His comments suggest we’ve failed in our mission of following Rerum Novarum, and I quote directly from his prayer to the building trades:

Today they balance their budgets on the backs of the working class,” Kiley said. Tax breaks go to the ultra wealthy. General Electric doesn’t even pay a dime. They say our unions have too much voice in political life, but pretend that we don’t see the hand of the Koch brothers and other billionaires underwriting their efforts.”

I don’t think Fr. Kiley was overly excited when he made those remarks. I think he was understated. The truth is even uglier and more repugnant than he described.

Today, more than a century after Rerum Novarum patterned a blueprint for a society in which the few would no longer be masters of the many. Workers in our country haven’t had a raise in more than 30 years.

These patient men and women have responded by putting in more hours and sending more and more family members into the workforce. Now their slim savings are being depleted by the uncontrolled greed Fr. Kiley so passionately described.

Jobs are being destroyed, homes auctioned off on the steps of county courthouses from Maine to New Mexico.

When it comes to the measuring sticks of a civilized society — infant mortality and life expectancy, the quality of our schools, poverty and health care — we fall near or at the bottom of the list among industrialized countries.

Yet we’re high up the ladder when it comes to compensation for the wealthy.

In late April, AFL-CIO President Rich Trumka launched our 2011 Executive PayWatch website, which showed that with millions of working Americans still struggling to get back on their feet, chief executives of our biggest companies were paid, on average, $11.4 million dollars — a 23 percent increase over the previous year.

Rich called it stunning.” I call it shameful.

What is perhaps even more shameful is that the conditions I have just described are treated by our society and our nation’s opinion leaders as normal.

In fact, working families in our country are in desperate trouble, and labor unions, the free associations” Rerum Novarum said should protect them, are under attack as never before.

The forces of what Pope Leo XIII properly called unrestricted capitalism” have always opposed the formation of labor unions, but in the first 70 years after he sent his historic letter to the Bishops, we made great strides.

Working with the Catholic Church, many other religions and the progressive political movement in our country, we built a labor movement that pulled millions of working families up into the middle class.

Protected by our government as justified by Rerum Novarum and the encyclicals that, to this day, echo and amplify it, millions of workers came together in unions.

With our combined strength and organization, we were able to successfully champion laws that infused Catholic social teaching into the marrow of our entire nation — among them old age and disability insurance, labor laws, wage and hour regulations, health care, the civil rights acts, federal aid to education.

I suppose it should have been anticipated, but I think both the Church and our labor movement were surprised when employers reacted to those laws and declared war on workers and our unions in the early 1980s.

Some say they were emboldened by President Reagan’s firing of the air traffic controllers; others think we simply dropped our guard, the Church as well as labor, and became complacent.

What matters is that for the past 30 years, workers’ wages have declined in concert with an historic decline in union membership and a decline in the attention of our Church to economic justice issues.

And today we live in a nation that looks more and more like a plutocracy and less and less like the democracy that allowed your parents and my parents to work hard, play by the rules and prosper.

As Fr. Kiley said in his building trades invocation, Today somebody has changed the rules.”

The new union-crushing crusade

For many years, private sector corporate employers changed the rules simply by ignoring them, breaking our weak labor laws governing contract negotiations, and breaking union organizing drives simply by firing union supporters.

Earlier this year, politicians began taking America’s anti-union, anti-worker crusade a step even further by trampling the rights of public employees and boldly trying to eliminate their unions altogether.

I’m sure most of you are familiar with what happened in Wisconsin, where a newly elected conservative governor forced state as well as municipal unions to concede health care and pension benefits, and then outlawed collective bargaining.

This wasn’t a struggle over health care and pension benefits — the workers and their unions agreed to those concessions. This was a struggle to preserve their right to come together in unions and collectively bargain for a better life, and they are close to losing that right altogether.

Now the union-crushing movement has marched into two dozen other states — Ohio, Indiana, Michigan, Florida, New Hampshire, Missouri, Pennsylvania, even Massachusetts and more among them.

If unchecked, this assault on the very existence of unions is sure to spread, and the impact on Catholic social teachings and, indeed, the moral and economic fiber of our nation, will be profound.

It is particularly distressing that many of the governors and legislators involved are Catholics who are simply ignoring the encyclical we celebrate today.

And it saddens me to witness the marginalization of our social teachings in the American church.

Challenging the powers that be’

Let us remind our entire Church that Rerum Novarum is not a cafeteria of suggestions and ideas from which we are free to pick and choose, but the modern expression of an unbroken line that stretches from the Book of Genesis, throughout the Old Testament, to the teachings of our Lord Jesus Christ himself.

Pope Leo XIII left no room for equivocation when he wrote: The State has for its office to protect natural rights, not to destroy them, and if it forbid its citizens to form associations, it contradicts the very principle of its own existence ….”

And let us also remind our Catholic elected officials as well as Church leaders that an attack on workers’ freedom to come together for a better life is an attack on the fundamental teaching of the Church about human dignity, not some ancillary doctrine that applied to our grandparents but not to us.

Economic Justice for All,” issued by our U.S. Catholic Bishops in 1986, reinforced Rerum Novarum as well as the teachings of a succession of popes. It instructed us, and I quote:

No one can deny the right to organize without attacking human dignity itself. Therefore, we oppose organized efforts such as those regrettably now seen in this country, to break existing unions and prevent workers from organizing.

Brothers and sisters, our instructions on these issues are clear and it falls to the Church and its leaders to renew them, not tomorrow, but today.

It will take more than words and admonitions to rescue working families from a society that insists they should have no say in the decisions affecting them.

It will take a genuine renewal of the social teaching tradition in the Church and the willingness of the Leadership to challenge the economic and political powers that be.” It is that tradition and that willingness that together brought us so far towards the goal of dignity for all work and dignity for all workers.

We need the help of every Catholic leader as well as every Catholic parishioner, not just in matters of public policy, but in direct action that we, from time to time, must undertake.

What I am suggesting is that we must restore Catholic social teaching to the center of the American Church, a position it still holds in Church doctrine, and renew the partnership between the Church and labor, if the labor movement is to survive and perpetuate our mission of being what amounts to an action arm of Catholic social teaching.

We need a louder, quicker, more universal Catholic voice, so we can confront the greed of the giant corporations that have become our ruling class. We need to launch a new program of joint outreach to the Latino and Asian immigrants who are tomorrow’s Americans and who need our help just as immigrants like my father and mother needed it.

We should implement a new and thorough education program based on Rerum Novarum, one that reaches into every seminary, every diocese and every parish in America.

And we should challenge every priest to be a labor priest, every bishop to be a labor bishop, every cardinal to be a labor cardinal, just as every pope since Leo XIII has been a labor pope.

Thank you all so much.

This speech first appeared online on Ray Abernathy’s blog, From the Left Bank of Potomac.

John J. Sweeney is president emeritus of the AFL-CIO, America’s largest federation of labor unions.
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