A Speech To The Pontifical Council For Justice and Peace – John J. Sweeney

A Speech To The Pontifical Council For Justice and Peace John J. Sweeney President, AFL-CIO Meeting of Trade Union Leaders Pontifical Council for Justice and Peace December 2-3, 1996

I. The principal problems for the world of work resulting from the process of globalization of the economy.
I want to thank Cardinal Etchegaray and the Pontifical Council for the great honor of participating in this meeting.
I am here as president of the AFL-CIO, the more than 13 million-member labor federation of the United States. As we do in our work every day, I will try to speak for the values and the interests of working Americans — people of every faith and viewpoint, union and non-union. And I will speak out of a deep belief that we share those concerns with our sisters and brothers throughout the world.
Cardinal Etchegaray has set the tone for this discussion in his article calling upon us all to “re-establish the concepts of solidarity and common responsibility as essential principles of the human endeavor.” As he writes, “These principles must be placed not just at the center of international development policy, but so much more so in the hearts of citizens and of societies, especially in the wealthier countries.”
Let us begin this discussion by facing the facts: There has been a collapse of social solidarity, not only between the wealthiest and the poorest countries but within the wealthiest societies themselves.
For a quarter century or more after the end of world War II, there was extraordinary social solidarity in the United States and in most other advanced industrial societies. Most people lived by common values and shared
understandings — a social compact, if you will. Business, labor, and government all agreed that working people were entitled to a fair share of the wealth they produced. Our economies grew. Living standards rose. And the social fabric was strengthened, as working people gained the means to support their families and communities.
Now, our world has been transformed beyond recognition. Many of the causes are well known. New technologies are miraculous. Modern communications are instantaneous. And investment crosses national boundaries with a keystroke on a computer.
In the United States, the globalization of the economy has gone hand-in-hand with the stagnation of living standards for working families. Working people’s productivity has increased. Stock prices are soaring. Executive salaries are skyrocketing. But most people are working longer hours, just to stay even.
Husbands and wives, fathers and mothers are working longer hours and frequently holding several jobs. Almost three-fifths of mothers with young children work outside the home. In answering a survey for the Women’s Bureau of the U.S. Labor Department, a woman who is the mother of two children described a day that begins at 5:45 in the morning and ends just before 11:00 at night, with scarcely a moment of rest.
Some of the greatest challenges are the startling abuses perpetrated against women workers. They suffer from consistently low wages, discrimination in hiring and promotions, unsafe and even abusive working conditions, and widespread sexual harassment as well. And, often, when they come home, they work an unpaid, “second shift,” caring for their families, their children, and, frequently, for aging parents or grandparents as well.
These all are social, as well as economic, problems. Parents worry about whether they have the time to teach their children the difference between right and wrong. They have less time to give to their churches and to civic and community organizations. As Cardinal Etchegaray has written, if we do not address the social and economic concerns of working women and men, they may become vulnerable to demagogues who preach intolerance at home and isolationism abroad.
Let me be clear: The problem really isn’t the new global economy. The problem is how corporations are answering the challenge. We see this in the United States.
Too many companies are taking the low road in international competition. They are cutting their workforces, their wages, and their benefits. They are fighting against working people and their unions. They scour the globe in search of places where working people have low wages and no rights.
Under the administrations of Ronald Reagan and George Bush, our government developed what is called the “American model”: They restricted the role of government in protecting working people, consumers, and the environment. They weakened unions. They negotiated trade agreements that protect the rights of the millionaire who sings a popular song but not of the worker who assembles the compact disk on which that song is recorded.
Wherever you live and work, our struggles in the United States are your struggles, too. In other advanced countries, the “American model” has been used to drive down wages and living standards. In developing countries, corporations headquartered in the United States too often exploit working women, working men, and even child labor.
At this meeting, I hope we can strengthen the ties among the unions, our churches, and all people of good will throughout the world. Let’s work together for a global economy that lifts the living standards and honors the human dignity of every man, woman, and child.
II. The role of the trade union in today’s world
If I may speak personally, I learned about the mission of the labor movement by attending union meetings with my father — and by studying the social teachings of the Church.
In his encyclical, On Human Work, Pope John Paul II writes of the importance of “a wide range of intermediate bodies,” with economic purposes, enjoying “real autonomy” from government and pursuing their goals “in honest collaboration with each other and in subordination to the demands of the common good.”
And, in their recent statement, “A Catholic Framework for Economic Life,” the U.S. Catholic Bishops declare: “All people have the right to economic initiative, to productive work, to just wages and benefits, to decent working conditions, as well as to organize and join unions or other associations.”
Our labor movement is truly an independent, “Intermediate body.” We are not tied to government or to any political party. Our members espouse every religious creed and political philosophy. Our commitment is to advance the interests and the values of working women and men.
We believe there is dignity in all work and that there must be dignity for all workers. Unions protect working people’s dignity by providing them with a voice — in the workplace, in the political process, and throughout society.
That is why public policy should encourage the growth of unions throughout the world. Free and effective trade unions promote a fair distribution of wealth and protect fundamental freedoms. Where unions are absent or suppressed, economic justice and human rights are at risk.
We see this, for instance, in Indonesia where young people work at appallingly low wages to make running shoes that are sold at appallingly high prices to young people in my own country. The leader of Indonesia’s largest independent union, Muchtar Pakpahan was arrested without even being told what he was accused of having done. And the Catholic Bishop of East Timor, Carlos Belo, won the Nobel Peace Prize this year for his advocacy of human rights in the face of oppression and exploitation.
Even in advanced, democratic societies, unions have to defend the principle that working people do not forfeit their rights when they go to work each day.
Without extensive and expensive government intervention in the economy, unions offer a way for working people to reduce inequalities in wages and wealth. It is no accident that, in the United States, as the share of the workforce represented by unions has declined, inequalities in income and wealth have grown.
And unions offer a means for workers to defend their dignity, as well as raise their wages. Dignity means a hospital worker winning the right to be addressed as an adult — to be called “Mrs. Smith” — and no longer be called by her first name, as if she were a child or a servant. Dignity means the right of auto workers to stop the assembly line, if they see a defect in quality or a hazard to safety. And dignity means the opportunity for social workers to control the size of their caseloads and teachers to control the size of their classes, so that they all can do their jobs better.
In some of the best and most successful companies, working people and their unions are winning a voice in decisionmaking at the corporate level. With this power, they are improving the quality of the goods they produce and the services they offer. They are helping their companies and their country compete in the world marketplace. And this is possible because it is a partnership of equals — and working people understand their efforts and insights will be used for them, and not against them.
With unions, working people don’t have to settle for scraps from the table. They have a seat at the table — from the bargaining table to corporate decisionmaking and public policy. And unions have a corresponding responsibility to raise the concerns of working women and men to national — and even international — consideration.
To do this, we must speak for a large and growing share of the working people in our own countries. We must address the issues of the present and the future, not reminisce about the glories of the past. The world and the workplace are changing, and we must change and grow — or stagnate and die.
At the AFL-CIO, we are devoting an increasing share of our resources to organize working women and men throughout the economy, especially in the fastest-growing industries. We are challenging national unions and local unions to do the same. Here at this meeting, I would like to offer a friendly challenge to labor federations in every country to increase their efforts and devote more resources to organizing. And I would like to extend an invitation to work together, especially in the multinational corporations where we share common interests, common problems, and common employers.
III. The promotion of the values of social justice and solidarity
Cardinal Etchegaray writes that what is at issue in the world today is how we will answer that ancient question, “Am I my brother’s keeper?” At its best, the labor movement offers a way to affirm and honor our obligations to our sisters and brothers.
We believe that organizing is a practical expression of the obligations of those who are more fortunate to those who are less fortunate. It is a practical necessity as well as a moral obligation because the exploitation of working people anywhere undercuts the security of working people everywhere. That is why organizing is not an act of charity — it is an act of solidarity.
That is why the labor movement in the United States is organizing workers from the strawberry fields of California, to the poultry factories and textile mills of the South, to workers in hospitals, nursing homes, and home care agencies, school systems and state and local governments throughout the nation.
We try to reflect the spirit of solidarity in everything we do. In public debate, we try to speak for all working Americans and their families, not just for union members. In fact, many of the victories we helped to win this year — raising the minimum wage, protecting tax credits for the working poor, and extending health insurance to many families without coverage — are at least as beneficial to low-wage workers outside our movement as for our current members.
But we are well aware that much more must be done, especially in the international arena. Corporations are increasingly global in scope. But the efforts of working people and their unions, and others of good will, are too often limited to our own countries.
That is why it is so important to strengthen the mediating institutions of government both at a national and transnational level and insist that they must intensify their efforts to defend working people in this ultra-competitive global economy. That is why the I.L.O. and the W.T.O. need to strengthen their commitments to the rule of law and the rights of working people.
That is why labor federations and labor unions need to expand our efforts to work with our sisters and brothers throughout the world. This means organizing and bargaining on an international scale. We need a new global vision for all of our labor movements.
I have spoken of our responsibilities in the labor movement to promote solidarity at home and abroad. Now, if I may, I would like to speak about the Church.
First, I would like to thank the Church for its service and struggle in behalf of working women and men in the United States and throughout the world.
In our organizing efforts, we receive strong support from religious institutions and religious leaders, especially the Catholic Church. For instance, the AFL-CIO is working with the United Farm Workers — the union founded by the late and legendary Cesar Chavez — to organize workers in the strawberry fields of California. The pay is low. Conditions are often unsafe. And women working in the fields regularly suffer sexual harassment. The organizing campaign is being supported by many religious leaders of all faiths, including many Catholic bishops.
But, still, we must strengthen the relationship between the labor movement and the Church. Our close ties came naturally when our Church was disproportionately working class and consisted largely of immigrants, such as my own mother and father. In those days, priests and union leaders were natural allies. Catholic parishes and institutions were natural homes for those organizing and defending workers.
Now, the task is more challenging, but even more urgent. Much remains to be done:
o The Church should continue to teach its social doctrine on
the dignity of work and the rights of workers in the
seminaries, universities, and schools. The U.S. Bishops’
Economic Framework can be a real help.
o We need more visible signs of the Church’s support for the
dignity of workers and their rights, especially for those
who suffer the most severe exploitation. Priests and
religious should be encouraged by their bishops to know and
support the labor movement.
o And Church investment portfolios should be used to support
working people. Investments, shareholder activity, and, if
necessary, disinvestment — all can be used to promote
economic justice.
But, most of all, the Church must address clearly and without compromise the moral dimensions of economic life. And it must maintain that the moral measure is how “the least of these” are faring.
That is why the Church must challenge those who, by their business dealings and corporate decision-making, push people to the margins of society. Many of the corporate leaders making the decisions we lament around this table today join in prayer every Sunday.
They are respected members of our congregations. Some good Catholics, indeed some professed religious, actively engage in practices that deny the rights to organize and bargain collectively to the workers who clean the floors of our hospitals and nursing homes, dig the graves in our cemeteries, and care for our ill and aged. They keep these working women and men from participating in the decisions that shape their lives.
The Church knows better. The Church must teach that justice demands more than charity and that, for the Gospel to come alive, it must be practiced in our policies as well as preached in our pulpits.
Together, we can build a world in the image of our oldest values and our bravest dreams. A world where children stretch their minds in classrooms, instead of straining their muscles in mines and mills, factories and fields. A world where every man and woman can live and labor in dignity. And a world where every society honors what is best and noblest in the human spirit.
I, for one, will leave this meeting with my commitment to these goals strengthened and renewed. For that — and for so much else — I thank you all.

 

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