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From the National Office 

Greetings Friend, September 2009

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By Bob Stewart

 

When growing up in southern Illinois, I had the good fortune of working construction jobs in the summer months, months of vacation from the academic life as a seminarian.  When working those jobs, I was a member of the Laborers Union.  My colleagues, like myself, enjoyed good pay and benefits.  Unlike me, most of them had families to support, and they worked hard to put bread on the table for their families, keep clothes on the backs of their children, and make certain that there was a roof over their heads.  

 

This area of the state, southern Illinois, was also the location of many coal mining communities. The United Mine Workers of America (UMWA) represented most if not all of the miners in our part of Illinois. Many of these folks were Catholics, sons of coal miners who were immigrants from Italy, Poland, and Lithuania. They revered John L. Lewis, the president of the UMWA and a driving force behind the formation of the CIO in the early days of the union movement, when industries such as the auto industry were being organized. Esteem for the union and church and politicians who supported labor impressed me when, working as a field service representa-

tive of the UMWA Health and Retirement Funds,, I visited the son of an Italian immigrant.  In his living room, he prominently displayed three pictures: Pope John XXIII, John L. Lewis, and President Franklin Roosevelt, the president who signed into law in 1935 the National Labor Relations Act, the law giving workers the right to form unions and bargain collectively.

 

The people with whom I worked in the late 1950s and 1960s did not spend time quoting the principles of Catholic social teaching set forth in papal encyclicals or Vatican Council II documents:  human dignity, the right to a just wage and to form unions and to work as a union-represented employee, the common good, the Church’s advocacy of justice for workers and human rights, and the primacy of people over things.  However, the principles of Catholic social teaching--although not a subject of daily conversation--cited above were alive and well in southern Illinois, and folks understood that the Church was on the side of the workers, an advocate for the rights of all who labor.

Should any in our Church today think that the Church has diminished support for workers in the 21st century, reading Pope Benedict’s newest encyclical will surely change their minds. Unions, says Pope Benedict “have always been encouraged and supported by the Church” (n. 64), and he notes the impediments that labor organizations encounter “in carrying out their task of representing the interests of workers, partly because Governments…often limit the freedom or the negotiating capacity of labor unions” (n. 25).

 

 In case there is any doubt regarding the value and dignity of the worker with respect to any discussion relative to economics and work, Benedict clearly states the Church’s position: “I would like to remind everyone, especially governments engaged in boosting the world's economic and social assets, that the primary capital to be safeguarded and valued is…the human person in his or her integrity: “Man is the source, the focus and the aim of all economic and social life”[61] (n. 25).

 

A few paragraphs later, Benedict reaffirms the Church’s strong advocacy of the rights of workers: “Lowering the level of protection accorded to the rights of workers, or abandoning mechanisms of wealth redistribution…hinder the achievement of lasting development” (n. 32).

 

 Pope Benedict clearly continues the Church’s tradition, a tradition that should make all of us proud, of championing the rights and dignity of workers.  May all of us in the Church follow his lead.

 

Bob Stewart is a member of the Ignatian Volunteer Corps Northern Virginia and works at the Center of Concern in Washington, DC.  He retired as the director of retirement programs for salaried and represented employees of one of the Fortune 100 companies in 2007.  He and his wife Charlene are the parents of four grown children, grandparents of seven, and members of Holy Trinity Catholic Church in Washington, DC.

   

Rooted in Catholic social tradition, the Center of Concern works collaboratively to build a world where economic and social systems guarantee basic rights, uphold human dignity, promote sustainable livelihoods and renew the Earth.  Visit www.coc.org.

 

This column is reprinted with the permission of the Catholic Standard in Washington, DC.

 
  

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