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 (Updated: December 21, 1998)

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Remarks by John J. Sweeney

President of the AFL-CIO

National Catholic Gathering for Jubilee Justice

Plenary Session

Los Angeles, CA

July 17, 1999
I grew up in a community called Tremont, in St. Joseph's parish in the Bronx  my parents were immigrants who came to this country in 1929 so full of faith in the Irish tradition that they brought my brother and sister and me into this world despite the Great Depression.

My father was a New York City bus driver and a member of the Transport Workers Union.  My mother was a domestic worker.  In our home there were three things that mattered: our family, our faith, and the union.  We knew that without our family, there would be no love. Without our faith there would be no hope of redemption.  And we knew that without the union, there would be no food on the table.

From my father and mother and the church, I learned that work is a primary means by which we worship and that through work we share in God's ongoing act of creation that is the foundation and the ordering of life.

I came to understand that we have an obligation to make use of our God-given skills and strengths, that through our work, we make products and provide services that make life better for others, and that in return, our employers and our society should offer us not only a decent livelihood, but also a sense that we ourselves are honored for the contributions we make.

Our church has a long tradition of supporting this ideal, but not all segments of our society concur, and the result is that while our country is experiencing an incredible prosperity, it is not a prosperity that is widely shared.

In 1995, Cardinal Bernardin, in a speech on the "Catholic Moral Vision in the United States," addressed the cruel paradox faced by working families.

"Macro indicators of our economic life are crucially important," he said, "but they do not address crucial moral questions that must be a part of U.S. economic life."

He further said, and I quote: "While we have demonstrated our ability to compete internationally, not all in our nation have survived the competition.  Economic dislocation, downsizing and loss of jobs, threats to familial and personal economic security are experiences all too well known by significant sectors of our population. The dynamic of the global market does not address the human costs of global competition either here or in other countries," close quote.

Four years after our beloved Cardinal spoke those prophetic words, our economic paradox is more distorted. 

While corporate executives are taking home scandalous pay packages, workers are having to hold down two and three jobs just to make ends meet.

While corporations are enjoying record profits, workers are losing their health care and pension coverage and seeing their first-rate, full-time jobs turned into part-time, cut-rate positions.

While the stock market is soaring, 40 million Americans have no health insurance coverage and 49 million Americans live in households that are unable to meet at least one basic need  such as paying the rent or utility bills, seeing a doctor or having sufficient food.

And in a country that supposedly cherishes freedom of speech and freedom of assembly, workers who try to correct these cruel contradictions by founding or joining unions find themselves harassed, intimidated, threatened and fired for their aspirations.

Some of the employers are simply international renegades who scour the world for sources of cheap labor, and they trample the rights of workers in Pakistan and Indonesia just as readily as those of workers in Alabama and Alaska.

But others are companies who pose daily as responsible corporate citizens, and sadly, they include many hospitals and nursing homes owned and operated by our own church  institutions intended to care more for people than for profits, but which have been forced into pricebased competition for patients. 

When employers interfere in a decision that rightfully belongs to workers, we are all diminished and God's love is diminished  workers are denied a fair share of the wealth they create, living standards decline and income inequality grows.

When employers respect free choice, we are all enriched  employers enjoy the rewards of more stable labormanagement relations and higher productivity, while living standards rise for everyone, right along with consumer spending and investment and citizen participation in our communities and in our government.

As a Catholic, I am proud of the role my church has played in supporting the rights workers to share in the wealth they create and the freedom of workers to found or join unions to secure those rights.

And it is my prayer that this conference will produce not only a renewal of that support, but a new level of commitment and bold new actions and initiatives.

Pope John Paul II directed us when he noted that Catholic tradition calls for a society of work, enterprise and participation which, and I quote, "is not directed against the market, but demands that the market be appropriately controlled by the forces of society and by the state to assure that the basic needs of the whole society are satisfied." Close quote.  

It is my belief that we in the church should work closely with unions to influence our government to pass laws and institute policies that do indeed "appropriately control the market," that help working families cope with the realities of our global economy and that help guarantee workers the right to found and join unions.

The church should use its investments to support companies and enterprises that help make sure "the basic needs of the whole society are satisfied" and to support employers who respect the freedom of workers to choose a union.

And, finally, the church should be a model employer, respecting the freedom to choose and converting the health care institutions it operates into high-performance, high-participation workplaces where workers are respected more for their brains than their backs, and as much for their compassion as their productivity.

I believe there are paths to justice here, if we have the commitment to find them and the courage to climb them.  The Irish poet Seamus Heaney has written: "History says don't hope on this side of the grave.  But, once in a lifetime, the longed for tidal wave of justice can rise up, and hope and history rhyme."

My hope and my prayer is that with the help of our church and all of you here today, justice will "rise up" like a "longed for tidal wave" and for working families "hope and history" will rhyme.

Thank you and Godspeed ...

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