The battle for worker’s rights, just wages and safe working conditions has been a generational campaign. And it has often been contentious. And frequently bloody.
Even today, people who have benefited from the efforts of union leaders, members and organizers — people who enjoy their eight-hour workdays, their paid vacations, their sick leave and so on — often have little but contempt for unions.
Much of that displeasure with unions is a result of the unions’ own misdeeds. Greedy and unscrupulous union leaders have soured many against them. It has also caused many to forget that union efforts led to benefits many of us enjoy today.
Union company squabbles are part of our history. Consider these few examples of the violence and darkness that has often accompanied efforts to unionize workers:
- In 1910 a bomb destroyed part of the Los Angeles Times newspaper building — a strong anti-union paper — and killed 20 people. Most historians agree it was the work of a pro-union “anarchist.”
- The very next year, the Triangle Shirtwaist Co. fire in New York City killed 146 women. It served as a stark example of the horrid working conditions employers often forced upon their workers.
- In 1914 a violent mine workers strike in Ludlow, Colo., resulted in the governor calling out the National Guard, which promptly set fire to striking mine workers’ tents and machine gunned many inside them. The result was the deaths of five miners, two women and 12 children.
- Harry Truman drew the praise of many when he ended a national railroad strike by threatening to nationalize all the railroads and draft the strikers into the Army.
- And locally, there were acts of violence during attempts by the United Auto Workers to establish a union at the old International Harvester Co. plant adjacent to what was then called Standiford Field. One union organizer had his foot run over and crushed by a bulldozer; another had his house fire-bombed.
The point here, at the approach of another Labor Day, is this: The benefits enjoyed by workers have rarely come as a result of the benevolence of kind-hearted companies. They were won with sweat and struggle.
And the goodness or badness of unions or companies should never cloud our Gospel call to help those among us in need of our assistance. Workers need work; the heads of families need jobs with fair wages and working conditions that don’t have to be endured or survived.
In his Labor Day Statement, Archbishop Thomas G. Wenski of Miami notes that while the economics of the United States seem brighter today than in recent years, “things have not truly improved for most American families.”
“Labor should allow the worker to develop and flourish as a person,” the archbishop notes. “Work also must provide the means for families to prosper.”
In this nation of incomparable wealth — just look at the financial bottom-lines of many present-day politicians — Archbishop Wenski writes that “the continuing struggles of most families to make ends meet are on display before our eyes.”
And that is a situation, he says, that is true both here and abroad.
The archbishop also notes that Pope Francis, in his encyclical Laudato Si’, teaches us “that of all the groups that play a role in the welfare of society and help ensure respect for human dignity, ‘outstanding among them is the family, as the basic cell of society.’ ”
That “basic cell” needs help from us, from the church, from companies and unions and others fortunate enough to have jobs.
It matters not what our positions on unions are; it only matters that we follow our calling as Christians and lend a hand to those in need. Whether we donate to Catholic Charities, Sister Visitor Center, the Society of St. Vincent de Paul or other charities, or whether we go out of our way to help the jobless find meaningful, sustainable work, this is what God calls us to do.
As Archbishop Wenski says: “How can we advance God’s work, in the words of the Psalmist, as he ‘secures justice for the oppressed, gives food to the hungry and sets captives free?’ These are difficult questions to ask, yet we must ask them.”
The archbishop notes that we’re not called to take sides, to be pro-union or pro-company. We are simply called to help.
“In demanding a living wage for workers we give hope to those struggling to provide for their families, as well as young workers who hope to have families of their own some day,” Archbishop Wenski writes.
“Unions and workers’ associations, as with all human institutions, are imperfect,” he writes. “Yet they remain indispensable to this work, and they can exemplify the importance of subsidiarity and solidarity in action. This Labor Day, let us pray, reflect and act, seeking to restore our work and relationships to the honored place God has ordained for them.”
Record Editor Emeritus