Labor Day 2022 is upon us, and in the past, labor priests like Fathers Peter Yorke, John Ryan, Charles Own Rice, Andy Boss, SJ, Phillip Carey, SJ, John Corridan, SJ, Raymond McGowan, George Higgins, Jack Egan, and others regularly shared about the achievements and needs of workers and the importance of the United States labor movement. The Washington, D.C.-based Catholic Labor Network numbers hundreds of priests supporting workers’ rights across the country today. One hopes that every priest supports workers’ rights and duties.
The promotion of good work is an ongoing cause of Catholic religious and laity, reaching back to Jesus’ sanctification of work itself, showing its intrinsic meaning and importance to life in the Father’s creation. Work also provides the extrinsic rewards of income and benefits. Jobs, for the great majority of Americans, are the necessary means to protect the vital cell of society, the family.
Self-preservation and sustenance are natural desires hard-wired into humanity. Employment plays a pivotal role in fulfilling those desires.
The role and roots of Labor Day
What is the role of Labor Day today, in a time of stark political division, street vitriol, and apparent collective world-weariness? All Americans possess varying degrees of observation and self-awareness. They use these to analyze the present moment, what it offers and what it does not. Armed with this knowledge, they choose their best course of action in response. Our natural ability to observe, judge, and act is switched on wherever we are, whether at a Labor Day picnic, around the family’s kitchen table, or at the celebration of the Mass. We voluntarily retreat from the world, wounding not just ourselves, but society as a whole, when we pull down the shades, sit in the dark, and do nothing.
In 1894, President Glover Cleveland designated the first Monday in September as a federal holiday in response to years of labor turmoil and a work stoppage that had, in his opinion, threatened national interests.
George Pullman of the Pullman Palace Car Company, Illinois, had cut wages without cutting rent for company-owned housing, and his employees/renters went on strike. The strike shut down railways in the Midwest through the support of the American Railroad Union and its president Eugene Debs. Debs, a decent human being by many accounts, later became the Socialist Party of America’s five-time candidate for president and was a distant also-ran five times. Senator Bernie Sanders frequently referenced Debs during his most recent campaign for president.
Debs and his supporters were activists at the apex of rapid industrialization in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Railroads, roads, bridges, telegraphs, and telephones had shrunk the nation. The meaning and sustainability of the family farm became progressively endangered. Chicago’s rail and stockyards, the coastal and Great Lakes ports, and the mines of the west became hubs for organizing.
Our predecessors analyzed their reality in the context of that moment in U.S. history and then responded. The unknown is how many considered the possible harmful consequences to future generations.
The efforts and dedication of union members and their supporters achieved a more equitable sharing of economic success. Even the most anti-union thinker recognizes that labor unions influenced the development of the country by gaining just wages, benefits, and working conditions for multiple generations of workers. On the downside, union “bosses” controlled New York Harbor longshoremen’s work and robbed Teamsters’ pension plans. Some union leaders became too powerful, holding authority long after they had pivoted from protecting their members to empowering, enriching, and elevating themselves. Federal, state, and local governments passed legislation to protect union members. Power can corrupt.
The link between work and family remained clear and always will. A good, meaningful job with a decent wage was everyone’s desire in organized labor’s heyday, but a critical analysis of the period also recalls injustices: racial discrimination, unfair treatment of women, corrupted corporations and unions, and union-busting by employers (including religious employers).
Sin and ignorance were a part of the culture, but with continued observation, reflective judgment, and a committed will to attain the true, the good, and the beautiful, faith-filled Catholics followed Jesus in their temporal pilgrimage.
Today immigrants, including many Catholics, come to the U.S. looking for a home, the majority starting in low-wage occupations like housekeeping, food services, and accommodations. Like former generations, they are aware that people of every race, creed, and country of origin have occasions of sin and ignorance. Reflective and often battle-worn from the corruption and injustices they escaped and the rigors of that escape, they are not naïve, grasping the reality of sin and ignorance present everywhere, even in sanctuary cultures.
Catholic social teaching reminds non-citizens and citizens of all nations that they have rights and an inherent responsibility to work for the common good. That responsibility includes respect for the law. Our common humanity is to be recognized, affirmed, and supported with the Golden Rule and Christian neighbor love. Doing for others who cannot help themselves was the sacrifice that Our Lord made for us.
Work will always remain essential to finding a better home. This Labor Day reflection focuses on organized labor and its continued role in a free country where freedoms are under attack.
The deep and growing disconnect
An individual worker can seldom muster the power to improve wages, benefits, or working conditions. Collective action for the common good is necessary and protected as foundational freedom. Despite the weakness of U.S. labor laws, recent successful organizing drives at Amazon, Starbucks, Google, and Apple illustrate that workers still have the freedom and power to leverage employers (global giants) into meeting with their chosen representatives.
Winning a representation election, however, does not always lead to a first contract and long-term collective bargaining. Moreover, with state and federal laws protecting employees, class action suits are a viable option for employees without union representation.
The number of union workers in the U.S. has continued to decline and major organizing drives like those of the first half of the 20th century are not on the horizon. Northern European countries have had a higher density of unionized workers than the United States for decades. In part, through legislation, centralized bargaining, and union representatives on corporate boards, the commonweal is thought out by management and worker representatives.
These countries also have much smaller populations than the U.S., for example, the Nordic countries have the highest levels of unionization in the world but with roughly the same total population as Texas.
According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, as of January 2022, 10.3% of the U.S. wage and salary employees—14 million workers—belonged to a union. In 1983, using comparable statistical measurements, 20.1% of U.S. workers were union members and numbered 17.7 million people. In 1983, the country had 5.7 million workers in public sector unions, the number was 7.0 million in 2021.
While the total number of union members in the workforce has declined over time, the number of public sector union members has increased. Private sector unions are not growing because the advantages of union membership fail to kick-start organizing. Long-standing contracts are actively in place, but membership is not increasing.
Some of the failure is due to the Taft-Hartley Act of 1947 which curtailed sympathy and secondary boycotts and also led to right-to-work state laws that ended union security contract provisions. Prevailing wage agreements and government contracts are the salvation of the “private sector” building and trades unions. The laws and contracts make these workers quasi-public employees, especially on tax-funded job sites. These skilled trade occupations continue to provide high wages and excellent benefits.
Organized labor has amassed power in public education, government, and health care. The National Education Association (NEA) is the largest union in the U.S. Large public sector unions include the Service Employees International Union (SEIU), American Federation of State, County, and Municipal Employees (AFSCME), American Federation of Teachers (AFT), National Nurses United (NNU), and the National Association of Letter Carriers (NALC).
These days, the voices of the state and national leaders in these unions extend significantly beyond their members’ work. Now open to their judgment and action are every political and social issue that the traditional “bread and butter” unionism arguably left to the conscience and faith of individuals and their families. With such expansive influence, their judgment and response are unfortunately all too often imbued with poor philosophical and theological understanding.
Labor unionists and their supporters are married, bear children, have extended family members who are young and old, consume goods and services, and often worship God. Portrayed more often than not as people of faith, one would hope that a union leader would provide a sympathetic and discerning ear to union members, their supporters, and the consumers of their products and services.
When union leaders are not people of faith, there is a real threat to the members, because labor movement activism will not bear fruit without deeper engagement with the spiritually, philosophically, and theologically transcendent. Labor activism is meaningless without the connection to the sacred and our God-given nature and purpose.
Either the errant union organizers and potential members are not seeing correctly, have a faulty understanding of what God is asking of them, or they lack the will to follow God in their actions. This is true of all humanity.
The failure of unions today
On the one hand, everyone knows someone working at a break-even job: cleaning houses, delivering packages as contracted labor, living on the precipice with gig-industry work, or paying rent and student loans as a barista. Some of them are caring for additional family members. Having a job is basic to life and a concerted effort to organize can improve people’s lives.
On the other hand, union leaders, whether Catholic or non-Catholic, have failed to use faith and reason to understand and reject attacks on life, marriage, and the family at their foundational level. The family remains the greatest source of support for Americans and no public social system will replace it.
During the industrial era, union officers and members guarded against communists “boring from within” the U.S. labor movement. Communism fell in Europe and never took hold in the U.S., partly because workers of faith, union leaders, and labor priests took non-violent action against a godless and irrational understanding of humanity.
In 2022, unions cannot make passing acknowledgments of the transcendent and think people will follow them. Gandhi’s walk to the sea, resulting in the collapse of colonialism, and Martin Luther King’s march on Washington, leading to civil rights legislation, were about universal human rights (essentialism), truth, and a sacred order. They were not about lifestyle and personal identity choices.
Public and private sector unions support abortion and same-sex marriage, obstructive to procreation and continuation of the human species because activists formed in these ideologies have bored from within the labor movement. While communists failed to bore from within during the 1920s, ‘30s, ‘40s, and ‘50s, postmodern/post-sexual revolution activists, with Old Leftist roots, have embedded their ideas in unions.
In the past 60 years, this postmodern boring from within occurred in other social institutions, including universities (successfully) and the Catholic Church (so far unsuccessfully). It is a significant phenomenon intensified by the power of social media and the politicization and proliferation of primitive, carnal lust, more politely injected under the heading of “human sexuality.”
Social media, Hollywood, and the New Left portray Americans who believe in respect for life from conception to natural death and marriage between a man and woman as being weird, bigoted, and out-of-touch. Postmodern critical theorists call such beliefs discriminatory and oppressive— “based on power”—and the result is a persecution of Catholics and others which has escalated to the point of government not just abandoning defenses of their religious rights, but actively promoting the annihilation of those freedoms.
Not more than two to three generations ago, Marxian theorists and communist activists made a similar analysis of power while also rejecting the transcendent.
Organizing around abortion or sexual identity places today’s unions in the twilight zone of French philosopher Michel Foucault’s postmodern view of reality. Any aberrant way of living at “the periphery,” “the boundary” of society must become mainstream, such as transgenderism, and unions have embraced this blindness. But the blind asked the Lord to heal them and not indulge their blindness. Sincere and respected philosophers, theologians, and cultural commentators describe this lack of discernment as “expressive individualism” and “emotivism.” Ultimately, whatever anyone believes, says, or does is ok. It is his “truth.” There is no essential understanding of our human nature, no metaphysics, and no Truth. It is not spiritual discernment, neither engaging faith nor reason at any depth.
The AFL-CIO, 1199SEIU, National Nurses United, and other labor organizations recently released statements denouncing the Supreme Court’s decision that overturned Roe v. Wade, their banshee wail that abortion is “healthcare” for organized labor.
Without respect for life, there can be no liberty and pursuit of happiness, values eloquently dubbed as reasonable and protected by the authors of “The Declaration of Independence.” An unborn child is one of us. These are self-evident truths. Concerning the end of life, if unions vociferously rejected euthanasia and promoted palliative care, they would increase their members’ work, serve the vulnerable, and create a culture of life. Healthcare and service workers contribute to society by caring for the weak and disabled, and euthanasia eliminates this good work.
Marriage between a man and woman creates a family. Genesis 2:24, “That is why a man leaves his father and mother and clings to his wife, and the two become one body.” John the Baptist lost his head for criticizing an unlawful marriage, Jesus taught about the commitment of marriage between a man and woman, and St. Thomas More and John Fisher became martyrs in the defense of marriage. St. John Paul II’s “Theology of the Body” is an inspired work defending the Church’s understanding of human sexuality and marriage. In The Laws, Plato placed marriage at the foundation of society and rejected homosexual relations.
Would any reflective person contend that biology is insignificant to Creation or human relations?
U.S. unions have championed Pride at Work for decades while good-willed, thoughtful Catholics and others continue to disapprove of homosexual acts and same-sex marriage. The advocates of same-sex marriage are at the highest levels of the union movement, often feminist icons. Liz Shuler, President of the AFL-CIO, Mary Kay Henry, International President of the SEIU, and Randi Weingarten, President of the American Federation of Teachers have an enormous influence on the direction of the labor movement, not unlike the influence of Cardinals in the Church.
Parents across the U.S., the first teachers of their children, are saying “NO” to the postmodernist propaganda/“curriculum” that forces vulnerable children to choose their sexual identity. The American Federation of Teachers and the National Education Association continue to push critical theory on public school children and their parents including its “intersectionality” that emphasizes differences and victimhood rather than the integral and solidary humanism as taught in Catholic social teaching.
The labor movement and the culture of life
Pope Francis wrote in the encyclical Fratelli Tutti (On Fraternity and Social Friendship) [#14]: “One effective way to weaken historical consciousness, critical thinking, the struggle for justice and the processes of integration is to empty great words of their meaning or to manipulate them. Nowadays, what do certain words like democracy, freedom, justice or unity really mean? They have been bent and shaped to serve as tools for domination, as meaningless tags that can be used to justify any action.”
The New Left’s intellectual elite, accompanied by its religious fellow travelers, has no authentic connection with the sacred. The New Left has denounced, marginalized, and canceled time-honored categories while inventing, proliferating, and imposing rabidly pagan categories on the wider culture. There is not even a hint of acknowledgment of or humble subservience to a divine authority higher than themselves. This is painfully clear when anyone who criticizes New Left arguments is labeled a “hater.”
The logical result of expressive individualism and emotivism is the labor movement’s promotion of abortion and abnormal sexual behavior as normative. Pope Francis is also addressing reactionaries who use “certain words” without living Christian neighbor love. Again, they, too, need to make sacrifices to affirm their belief in the sacred. Humanity is weak and sinful, not God. Being a Christian, while life-affirming, acknowledges and embraces the cross.
Years ago, I had individual, face-to-face meetings with both Msgr. George Higgins and Msgr. Jack Egan. They had distinct personalities and engaged the social question in their own ways, one was a writer and the other an organizer. Today’s religious men and women who accompany unionists have a duty to engage the social question and present the faith in its fullness.
Unfortunately, the New Leftists have fellow travelers within Catholic religious life. Unionists, particularly Catholic unionists, ought to know that spiritual discernment happens when they first surrender to God because not everything people desire is necessarily from God.
Expressive individualism and emotivism are also in the Church because the Church does not isolate itself or hold itself aloof from the wider, secular culture. The challenge for priests and other religious is to teach the fundamental and unalterable truth that the Church teaches. The reasons that the Catholic Church teaches that life is to be respected from conception to natural death, and marriage is between a man and a woman, are found in multiple Church documents. In the case of homosexuality, the person is made in the image of God, but the acts are intrinsically disordered.
The Catholic Church today, unfortunately, has priests and religious who are both conflicted by same-sex attraction and active promoters of changes in the Church’s teaching on homosexuality. Striking at the core of the Church’s understanding of life, marriage, and the family, their boring from within the Church is duplicitous.
Some same-sex attracted men and women enter the religious life looking for healing but then feel empowered to attack Church teaching openly or surreptitiously. They fail to discern properly and surrender to God. A few simply enter the religious life to promote the postmodern agenda.
Some Catholic theologians now favorably reference postmodern philosophy (e.g., the gender ideology of Judith Butler) which is laden with critical analysis but weak in clarity and logic. Don’t children come from a man and a woman and therefore have a right to a mother and father? Pope Francis writes in Fratelli Tutti of our present moment [#210], “Good and evil no longer exist in themselves; there is only a calculus of benefits and burdens [proportionalism]. As a result of the displacement of moral reasoning, the law is no longer seen as reflecting a fundamental notion of justice but as mirroring notions currently in vogue.”
Pope Francis also quotes John Paul II’s “Veritas Splendor” in Fratelli Tutti [#209]: “Is not the indifference and the heartless individualism into which we have fallen also a result of our sloth in pursuing higher values, values that transcend our immediate needs? Relativism always brings the risk that some or other alleged truth will be imposed by the powerful or the clever. Yet, [John Paul II taught in Veritas Splendor] “when it is a matter of the moral norms prohibiting intrinsic evil, there are no privileges or exceptions for anyone. It makes no difference whether one is the master of the world or the ‘poorest of the poor’ on the face of the earth. Before the demands of morality we are all absolutely equal.”
Catholic social teaching and labor priests recognize the role labor unions play in a free country, but Catholics have a God-given responsibility to speak the truth when organized labor demands acceptance of school curricula, policies, and language that fail to teach the truth about human sexuality. “Diversity” is now blended with decadence.
Parents are the first teachers of their children, and faith is the cornerstone of this teaching. If the SEIU and the American Federation of Teachers cannot accept freedom of religion, then homeschooling and vouchers are reasonable, nay, essential options. American Catholic theologian John Courtney Murray, SJ saw and others have seen, no constitutional, theological, or philosophical impediments that prevent the state from funding schools that parents want for their children.
In the case of healthcare workers, respect for life is fundamental to their vocation. The boring from within of postmodern activism has diminished the importance of discerning God’s will in healthcare. The sacred order is lost. But the recent Supreme Court decision on life has provided hope. Healthcare unions can create a culture of life with the support of people of faith. It’s our duty as disciples of Jesus Christ—priests, religious, and laity—to promote with faith and reason the rights and duties of workers.
Happy Labor Day.
Murray, John Courtney. We Hold These Truths. (Sheed and Ward: Kansas City, Mo., 1960).
Plato, The Laws, translated by. Trevor J. Saunders. (Penguin Books, Harmondsworth, Middlesex, England, 1970).
Pluckrose, Helen and James Lindsay. Cynical Theories: How Activist Scholarship Made Everything about Race, Gender, and Identity—and Why this Harms Everybody. (Pitchstone Publishing Durham, North Carolina, 2020).
Trueman, Carl R. The Rise and Triumph of the Modern Self: Cultural Amnesia, Expressive Individualism, and the Road to Sexual Revolution. (Crossway: Wheaton, Illinois, 2020).
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