Monday, September 5, 2011

Labor Day 2011: reflection, not celebration

It seems to me that we need Labor Day this year more than ever. Worker's rights, the result of hard fought battles over decades, are in danger of being rolled back. Take the Wisconsin law that actually repealed the right of state workers to collectively bargain as an outstanding example of this tendency. On the other hand, unions have not always done a good job representing their members, meaning, like many companies and even governmental entities, they often work against the common good.

I have to express my personal dismay that for the first time in my life it seems that powerful economic and political interests (as the powers in play in Wisconsin reveal) have succeeded in getting people to advocate against their own interests. This odd state-of-affairs favors the perpetuation of the status quo; an economic environment in which more and more wealth is concentrated in the hands of an increasingly smaller percentage of people. This does not bode well for our present or our collective future.


Labor relations are supposed to be a balancing act. Employees of a company have to realize that the company must remain profitable. Public sector employees need to realize that their wages are paid largely by the taxes of their fellow citizens, or at least by revenues generated by the government, making those revenues the common fund of everyone. Conversely, those on the ownership, management end of the table need to show that they care about those who perform the work without which their enterprise would collapse. Nonetheless, the answer cannot be seeking to legally strip workers of their rights. Neither can the answer be refusing to make concessions during very tough economic times, which are not likely to get easier any time soon.

As Bishop Stephen Blair of Stockton, chairman of the USCCB's Committee on Domestic Justice and Human Development wrote in this year's annual Labor Day statement,
Union workers are part of a smaller labor movement and experience new efforts to restrict collective bargaining rights. Hunger and homelessness are a part of life for too many children. Most Americans fear our nation and economy are headed in the wrong direction. Many are confused and dismayed by polarization over how our nation can work together to deal with joblessness and declining wages, debt and deficits, economic stagnation, and global fiscal crises. Workers are rightfully anxious and fearful about the future. These realities are at the heart of the Church’s concerns and prayers on this Labor Day


The bishops' Labor Day statement goes on to confront our current difficulties head-on, noting that
"[t]his year is less a time for celebration and more a time for reflection and action on current economic turmoil and hardships experienced by workers and their families. For Catholics, it is also an opportunity to recall the traditional teaching of the Church on dignity of work and the rights of workers. This Labor Day, the economic facts are stark and the human costs are real: millions of our sisters and brothers are without work, raising children in poverty and haunted by fears about their economic security. These are not just economic problems, but also human tragedies, moral challenges, and tests of our faith
The USCCB statement goes on to cite the Holy Father's too-little read and reflected upon encyclical, Caritas un Veritate, to the effect that our "current crisis obliges us to re-plan our journey, to set ourselves new rules and to discover new forms of commitment, to build on positive experiences and to reject negatives ones. The crisis thus becomes an opportunity for discernment, in which to shape a new vision for the future" (par. 21). Undergirding this shift must be the simple axiom that the economy (an extremely complex reality at best) exists to serve people, people do not exist to serve the economy, but God and each other precisely through their work.

5 comments:

  1. In my opinion, the labor unions are no better than business management. They seek to maximize their own interests and have little interest in the common good. Both sides hahve the exact same problem, and there are many people who are neither business management or union labor who are stuck in a decreasing financial position because of it. In my own company, I pay 4 times the amount of health care premiums to offset the cost of the union negotiated rates, and we were told our premiums were raised to offset those costs.
    In the public sector, for instance, the Chicago public schools refuse to lengthen the school day, because those in the union say that teachers already work 14 hours a day (the school day is less than 6 hours long). It is this kind of stupid argument, in which they bold-face lie to the public, which demonstrates that it's not really the kids that come first, it's the union's self interests.

    Indeed, we need a labor day. We need a day in which we remind the unions (like we do big business) that their demands do not serve the common good.

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  2. If you read the USCCB statement, you will see that unions aren't spared fair criticism. Some union demands, just as some company/management demands, do serve the common good. Undoubtedly many unions have not only compromised the common good, but that of their membership. I think of the U.S. automakers, who were basically done-in by giving in to grandiose labor demands. Similarly, the U.S. airline industry was tanked as much by exorbitant pilot union concessions as by 9/11. Of course, now with fees that charge you for breathing air on one of their airliners, they have regained profitability.

    Certainly, teachers unions work against the common good pretty much across-the-board. The Utah Education Association, for example, perpetually outright lied about what effect a bill to provide private school vouchers, allowing parents choice in education would have on public school funding. They forgot to mention that the proposal would have actually increased per pupil funding in public schools! Other examples abound. A guy collecting signatures for a petition at my neighborhood grocery store a few years ago on behalf of the UEA learned about this from me the hard way, as did a number of my neighbors.

    What Bp Blair is calling on us all to do is exactly what you suggest. It is clear to me that the answer is not depriving people of their collective bargaining rights. Unions need to get back to being run by people who have actually spent a career doing whatever the membership does, people who are fair-minded and understand the valid interests of both sides and who recognize that labor negotiations are complex and that breaking the bank is not in anyone's interest.

    As in the world of high (as in on drugs) finance, labor relations have become too much the provenance of lawyers and others who are not actual stakeholders, but opportunists who operate in their own interests. The media too, our increasingly compromised and stupefied fourth estate, has some responsibility in these matters.

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  3. I also think the criticisms levied on high finance by the Holy Father in his encyclical and the utter disregard for social responsibility by many businesses and companies constitute a huge part of the problem, too. All of this congeals to create not just an economy, but a society in which the only concern everyone has is, "What's in it for me?"

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  4. I belong to a union - a public teacher's union. My wages are fair - not outrageous. I am thankful for being paid a decent wage. That said, if I were the sole breadwinner in my family of four, we would be subsisting with much difficulty - on my wages. We would not be able to afford a home, or save money.

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  5. I think of all the public sector employees, teachers are certainly not overpaid. In most places, as here in Utah, teachers are underpaid. It would be difficult for anyone to be a sole breadwinner and raise a family on what a teacher makes.

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