The challenge of Labor Day

As the U.S. does not have any national holiday with a specific focus on the economy, unlike Independence Day which addresses our political foundations, Labor Day is frequently used as a “report card” on the economy. As work and workers have historically been regarded as the most single important component of the economy, this linking of an assessment of the general economy and the more specific attention to workers is appropriate.

How do we evaluate the corporate performance this past year? If we look at the massive trade deficit, the growing national debt, the continuing residue from corporate scandals such as Enron and WorldCom and the massive CEO salaries and severance settlements to resigning executives, the picture is not good. Perhaps the most troubling trends are the division in the nation between an elite wealthy tier and the rest of us, (the 2004 Federal Reserve Study showing the top 1 percent with more than one-third of all the nation’s wealth) and the job insecurity generated by outsourcing, plant closings, and corporate mergers.

There is a new book by New York Times reporter Louis Uchitelle, “The Disposable American,” in which he explores in-depth this issue of unemployment, under the heading of job insecurity. His study shows a steady rise in layoffs, plant closings, and outsourcing generating almost universal job insecurity in the U.S. since the late 1970s. Behind the relatively innocent numbers of 4 percent to 6 percent unemployment is the reality that some 30 million Americans have been permanently laid-off over this span of years, as gradually, yet dramatically our large corporations have abandoned the heretofore existing social contract in the American workplace. Uchitelle contends that this has not only brought financial hardship, but often undervalued psychological and social family injury to the fired workers. Almost completely overlooked in academic research has been its impact in planting a distrustful, unhealthy environment among the remaining employees. Perhaps many Pilot readers have experienced first-hand such job loss and its consequent negative spillover in their personal life.

How has this economic performance come about? Almost all commentators hold that since the advent of the Reagan administration, corporate America has dominated electoral politics, the media, and broader culture. As a corollary, the role of government has been shrinking. This has meant a cutback in regulatory oversight of business activities, and many social welfare programs. Some contend that the business hegemony has spilled over to sway regulatory boards, such as the National Labor Relations Board, to adopt anti-union positions.

In a Labor Day article for largely Catholic readership, we must look at the above scenario with the eyes of faith and the Scripture injunction to “love your neighbor as yourself.” What does our faith tell us about the gulf in the distribution of wealth among the members of a single family under God? What does it tell us about the fracturing of the social contract between ownership and the workforce? Among other things, our faith tells us: that this national performance is unacceptable; that we have the moral responsibility to work to improve conditions. We should support politicians who address creatively and boldly social and economic policies that benefit all, not simply the privileged or wealthy -- i.e. such items as the estate tax and minimum wage issues. We should curb those cultural influences that glorify, worship, the accumulation of great wealth. As Hurricane Katrina dramatically showed, we must improve the educational and social resources of the urban community.

On this holiday, that recognizes the historical contribution of the union movement in making life more humane, we should consider in both our workplaces and our private lives the renewed support to revitalize the labor movement. As the popular bumper sticker says: “The labor movement: the folks who gave us the weekend.”

This archdiocese continues to sponsor an office dedicated to fostering the contribution of the organized labor management community via educational and mediating programs. This is the last such Church-based labor management center in the nation. Readers interested in finding more about this initiative should consult our Web site or call 781-430-7887.

What is suggested here will not be easy. Almost all of us have been lulled into complacency or a feeling of powerlessness about this drift in our national climate. How to revive our spirits? One option might be to obtain a copy of Pope Benedict’s encyclical “Deus Caritas Est” (“God Is Love”). More ambitious, and perhaps a more rewarding initiative, would be to find like-minded parishioners to start the JustFaith Program that includes Bible study, retreat, and social action. This past spring, the archdiocese held its first annual Social Justice Conference. From that session, three parishes have decided to launch such a JustFaith Program this fall. Our second annual conference is scheduled for April 28th, hopefully planting new seed for many more JustFaith programs in 2007-2008. Set that date aside now.

All these efforts will be our attempt at embracing that spirit of brotherhood and sisterhood that John Paul described so powerfully in his encyclical, “On Social Concern”: “Solidarity is not a feeling of vague compassion or shallow distress at the misfortune of so many people both near and far. On the contrary, it is a firm and persevering determination to commit oneself to the common good, that is to the good of all and of each individual because we are all responsible for each other.”

Father Edward Boyle is executive secretary and chaplain of The Labor Guild of the Archdiocese of Boston.