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 (Updated: September 7, 1999)

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Monsignor George Higgins

National Catholic Gathering for Jubilee Justice

July 15 - 18, 1999

Los Angeles, California

As we gather for the Jubilee Justice, and respond to the Holy Father's call to prepare for the great Jubilee Year 2000, there are many subjects that deserve our careful and serious attention. High among them is the labor issue and the rights of workers to freely join unions. 

This is extremely important for many reasons. The anti-union spirit in this country today assumes that we don't need unions anymore. This is totally false and totally unrealistic. I can't imagine how we can have a just society without a strong labor movement. 

Early in this century, the Catholic community ministered to a nation of immigrants from Europe. Today we witness another massive wave of immigration. These immigrants, very poor people from Latin America, Asia and elsewhere are perhaps even less prepared to make their way in the economy than the immigrants of the last century. These immigrant workers along with the great numbers of women who have now entered the workforce and also the millions of working families struggling to get by deserve our continued strong support. 

If we care about the struggles that workers face, such as trying to survive on less than a living wage, facing illnesses without health insurance and living with the fear that any day they could lose their job, then we must care about strengthening the labor movement. No amount of legislation, particularly in the present climate, and appeals to good will are going to bring justice to workers unless they have their own organizations. The right of workers to organize is absolutely fundamental to any talk about justice in today's world.

At this juncture, here at the Jubilee, we must pledge to strengthen the American Catholic heritage and the church's tradition of sympathetic support for working people and their unions. We must move forward to the next century by acknowledging and affirming that all workers, including employees of Catholic institutions, such as hospitals, schools and social service agencies, have the right to freely form their own organizations. 

The teachings of the church on this issue are quite explicit. In 1986, in their pastoral letter Economic Justice for All, the Bishops said "all church institutions must fully recognize the rights of employees to organize and bargain collectively with the institutions through whatever association or organization they freely choose." 

But as current phenomena illustrate, the right of employees of Catholic institutions to organize into a union of their own free choice has yet to be universally acknowledged. Catholic health care facilities in several parts of the country are in open conflict with their employees over this issue. Some have hired notorious anti-union consulting firms to prevent their workers from organizing.  

These institutions have grown into large scale, multi-state corporate entities. Some have not yet adjusted to the realities in which we live. It's been slow work because until relatively recent times, the church was not involved in the labor management field. Volunteers, sisters, and brothers used to run our institutions, but now that has changed.  

In today's world, our large Catholic institutions have a glorious opportunity to set the example for the rest of the church and society in general. These institutions should not only follow legally established labor rules but should set the highest standard for fair treatment. Our role as Catholic is not only to respect workers' rights, but to be exemplary.

People today are bogged down by thinking of unions narrowly in terms of being concerned only with wages and benefits, and not considering their importance in representing workers in the broader sense. Workers want a voice, and a structure to participate in the running of the institutions in which they work. People everywhere have a perfectly natural desire to be represented and to work together around issues of common concern. It's serves us best to respect and honor this right.

I have never been more hopeful about church labor relations than I am today despite our problems. I believe that Los Angeles, where we are today, is the city of the future for the labor movement.  But it is absolutely imperative that the union people get together with the church people on a regular basis to eliminate misunderstandings and to explore the values we share. We can work together as long we keep the lines of communication open. 

One of the things that makes me most hopeful about church labor relations today is the formation of the National Interfaith Committee for Worker Justice. They are helping clergy and laity all over the country to understand the labor issues.  And they are founding local interfaith committees to support workers struggles in many communities. This is good work. 

This meeting itself also makes me hopeful. The energy and enthusiasm and learning that we are doing here must continue, for this is a long-term fight. Thank you.

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