SPEECH GIVEN BY
RERUM NOVARUM CELEBRATION
Riverdale, New York
October 3, 1991
I am delighted to be here, and I want to thank you for honoring me with the Pacem in Terris Medal.
It is a special honor that in the Year of the Social Teaching of the Church, the 100th anniversary of Rerum Novarum, you have chosen to commemorate the close relationship between the Church and labor, and give this medal to a trade unionist as a symbol of that relationship.
Pacem in Terris means a great deal to women and men of my generation. When it was issued by Pope John XXIII, in the days when the Cuban missile crisis and the building of the Berlin Wall were still fresh in our minds, its message of optimism echoed across a world that badly needed a ray of hope.
We remember its assertion that every human being has certain rights: a right to a worthy standard of living, a right to basic security, a right to express opinions, a right to work, a right to a basic education and to technical and professional training.
And we remember its statement of the interdependence of the world’s peoples – its recognition that "the social progress, order, security, and peace of each country are necessarily connected with the social progress, order, security, and peace of all other countries."
Pacem in Terris was a milestone for the Church – but several years before it was issued, its spirit was already a powerful presence at Manhattan College. I know I was here.
My classmates and I had the opportunity to learn the best of Catholic social teaching from Brother Cornelius Justin, who started the Department of Labor-Management Studies.
Brother Justin distributed Dorothy Day’s Catholic Worker on campus each week, but he took special delight in distributing a special edition of the Catholic Worker that argued it was the responsibility of Catholics to be conscientious objectors to service in the armed forces. This was in 1947 or 1948, on a campus where three-fourths of the students were veterans returned from World War II.
That was clearly a case of Pacem in Terris before its time.
It was here at Manhattan College, in this hall, that I heard one of my predecessors as AFL-CIO secretary-treasurer, George Meany, debate the then president of the National Association of Manufacturers on the subject of social justice and social responsibility.
I had no idea that might eventually be a successor of Meany’s, but I obviously liked his presentation the most.
My classmates and I also had a chance to learn from George Donahue, then the president of the Association of Catholic Trade Unionists, who gave a talk one Sunday to the Leo Labor Club that I will never forget – and, of course, we learned from all of the Christian Brothers and lay teachers here who committed their lives to teaching.
We owe each of them a great debt of honor.
Two generations later, the commitment to Catholic social doctrine a Manhattan College is just as robust. There is no better example than the Peace Studies Institute, which is a model of what a justice and peace education program should be.
You observe today a major part of the Church’s social teaching dealing with working people – their rights, their obligations, their relations with management, the conditions in their workplaces.
I would like to offer a few observations on what that teaching means for the trade-union movement.
The starting point is, of course, the document that you celebrate here, Rerum Novarum. It is the moral bedrock for every activist who looks to the Church’s social teaching.
Consider the New Social Order that it proclaimed – an order based on worker’s rights to dignity, decent working conditions, a just wage, and freedom to organize. That vision still resonates a century after it was first published.
The themes of Rerum Novarum were developed and expanded in other encyclicals over the next decades, in a continuum that runs to Centesimus Annus.
The contribution of Quadragesimo Anno was a call for workers to share in the ownership, management, or profits of the enterprise.
Next was Mater et Magistra, which stated that organization of workers isn’t just desirable, it is necessary. This idea was defined again in Pacem in Terris with its proclamation of trade-union organization as "the indispensable means to safeguard the dignity of the human person."
Mater et Magistra also suggested that traditional collective bargaining should be supplemented by new institutions that will make it possible for workers’ influence to extend beyond the individual productive units.
Laborem Exercens went even further. It said that "human work is a key, probably the essential key, to the whole social question." It also noted that "the principle of the priority of labor over capital is a postulate of the order of social morality."
Centesimus Annus, issued earlier this year, consolidates and reaffirms the teachings of the earlier encyclicals.
It’s a remarkable document, and it covers a wide range of social issues. Let me mention three of the points it makes that have to do with work and trade unions.
The first is its explicit declaration of a right to employment.
It says, "The obligation to earn one’s bread by the sweat of one’s brow also presumes the right to do so. A society in which this right is systematically denied, in which economic policies do not allow workers to reach satisfactory levels of employment, cannot be justified from an ethical point of view, nor can the society attain social peace."
The second point is that Centesimus Annus repeats the earlier encyclicals’ proclamation of the moral importance of a just wage – and it says that a just wage is one that is sufficient to enable workers to support themselves and their families.
The third point is that Centesimus Annus affirms "the right to establish professional association" and it makes clear "the Church’s defense and approval" of trade unions.
"The role of trade unions in negotiating minimum salaries and working conditions is decisive," the Pope says, but he also speaks of the role of unions, "not only in negotiating contracts, but also as ‘places’ where workers can express themselves. They serve the development of an authentic culture of work and help workers to share in a fully human way in the life of their place of employment."
The Pope concludes that "there is still need for a broad associated workers movement directed toward the liberation and promotion of the whole person."
Think about how sweeping these positions are – a right to employment, the morality of a just wage, the support of trade unions as vehicles of liberation and defenders of human dignity.
As we reflect on those positions, we can’t help but see the liberating effects of workers’ movements in Poland, Hungary, Czechoslovakia, and other parts of eastern and central Europe where these movements were in the vanguard of the struggle of democracy.
But in our country, you don’t hear those kinds of ideas very much, and that’s a shame. The truth is that there are precious few politicians or newspaper editorial writers in this country who are as progressive as Centesimus Annus.
Instead, we are in a time when you hear choruses of praise for capitalism and the accumulation of wealth.
Schools of management rhapsodize over "union-free environments." Free-market economists sing hymns to the unrestricted marketplace and to competition.
Editorial writers serenade the Japanese system, where giant corporations and banks work hand in glove with powerful government ministries.
And the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund, which were created to facilitate the assistance to underdeveloped nations from developed nations, now put a premium not on social development and social programs, but on privatization and on the reduction of governmental functions as essential parts of a laissez-faire economy.
Somehow, the rights of working people seem to get lost in the shuffle a lot of the time. If workers fall victim to the forces that the economist Joseph Schumpeter called capitalism’s "gales of creative destruction," well, that’s just too bad for the workers.
That is the fashion of the day, and Centesimus Annus goes against it completely. It says "no" to the glorification of greed. It calls for economic institutions that will ensure a measure of security and fairness for working people.
And it confirms once again that the fundamental principles in the Church’s social teaching have been – and remain – the principles of American trade unions.
Does this mean that every individual in the Church and the unions has always conformed to those principles? Unfortunately not.
Through the years, some trade-union leaders, because of personal greed or ambition, have shirked a solemn moral obligation to promote the best interest of their members.
And some Church leaders and operators of Church-related facilities have shown so little respect for the instruction of the encyclicals that they have resisted their own employees’ efforts to join unions and to collaborate in work.
Still, on the whole, the records of the Church and of trade unions are consistent with their best principles.
But what of the future? Where do we go from here?
Obviously, we face a daunting array of challenges if we seen a society more faithful to the teachings of the social encyclicals. My personal choice of a new challenge is the exploration of whether a worker has a property right in her or his job.
The question for us to take up is this: Should a secretary and a steelworker have as much security n the workplace as, say, a tenured faculty member at Manhattan College or any other college already has?
Or maybe we could frame the question a little differently: Shouldn’t the secretary, the steelworker, and the faculty member all have even more security that the faculty member now has?
Let me suggest that a property right in a job has just as much moral credibility as the property rights that capital has defended for itself and society has honored over the years.
In fact, we may already be able to infer a property right in a job from the rights that are spelled out in Church doctrine: the right to have a union, to bargain with the employer over working conditions, to have a voice in management, and even to have an interest in ownership.
A property right in a job would mean that workers would be entitled to continued employment when they do good work. They could not be discharged except for just cause.
It would mean that the worker could expect managers to put the highest value on preserving the enterprise and the worker’s employment.
It would mean that the job could not be exported out of the community or out of the country simply because the owners of the enterprise were looking for fatter profits.
But while you and I might wish that a property right in a job could be written into law and custom tomorrow morning, it unfortunately won’t be.
It still needs analysis and definition. It needs the study of theologians and ethicists. It needs discussion and debate – the survey of its contours – the argument of its merits. And we need to do that both in the Church and in the public arena.
But one day, this right will be recognized and workers will have a little more dignity in the workplace than they do now.
When that happens, we will be a little closer to the social order that Pacem in Terris said is indispensable to peace, an order "founded on truth, built according to justice, vivified and integrated by charity, and put into practice in freedom."
Thank you very much.