photo of Larry Snyder, President of Catholic Charities USA

Of Picket Fences and Picket Lines: Labor Day Realities in a Global Economy

A few days ago many Americans gathered around the barbecue with family and friends, celebrating the end of summer at Labor Day picnics.  It is a bucolic picture, the image of hard-working America we practically hold sacred.  But in reality many of those picnickers are anxious about keeping the jobs they have and 14 million other Americans mourn the jobs they lost. Since the financial crisis began, the number of Americans coming to Catholic Charities for help with their basic needs – housing, food, prescriptions – has risen from 8.5 million in 2008 to 10.3 million in 2010.

Labor Day weekend began on the heels of the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics most recent employment situation report. The unemployment rate – 9.1 percent – has remained unchanged for the past five months. Six million people, about half of the total unemployed, have been jobless for more than 27 months.  Nearly one million of them have the distinction of being categorized as “discouraged workers” who no longer are looking for work because they believe no jobs are available for them.  As a result of government downsizing 550,000 more Americans have lost their jobs.  The Washington Post provides a glimpse into the world of unemployment through the paper’s “Help Wanted” project, which follows six unemployed persons as they struggle to pay bills and meet the other challenges of joblessness.

The critical relationship between work and human dignity has long been recognized in Catholic social teaching.  Work is more than a way to make a living; it is a form of continuing participation in God’s creation.  And if the dignity of work is to be protected, then the basic rights of workers must be respected as well . The labor movement that emerged in the late 19th century produced the trade unions that served to protect workers for the greater part of the 20th century.

However, we recognize that the economic and political environments of the mid-1900s have changed considerably over the past several decades.  From a situation where business and politics took place within national boundaries to our present world of international trade and finance the power of a government to wield significant control over its economy has diminished. The frustration we all feel about the inability of Congress to find ground to work together may largely be rooted in this new reality.  The opportunity before us, though, was articulated by Pope Benedict XVI in Caritas in Veritate:   “…it seems more realistic to re-evaluate [government’s] role and their powers, which need to be prudently reviewed and remodeled so as to enable them, perhaps through new forms of engagement, to address the challenges of today’s world.”

Similarly the structure of the American workforce has changed as technology has introduced new industries and jobs unimaginable in 1930. We must bring the same creative energy that gave birth to our labor unions to design new models for worker training, opportunity, and protection.

This week we will gather together again, this time around the television to watch and hear President Obama’s plan for job growth. We would be well advised to remember the Holy Father’s words as the president lays out his proposal: understand both the limits and strengths of our government in solving our problems. Then encourage our leaders to find new forms of engagement – with the nonprofit sector, with private and public companies, with labor organizations, with working Americans of all stripes – to discover the breakthrough solutions we need.

The old models no longer work.  We must think and act anew if we are to create our future.