Why There’s So Much Ado About Labor in My Column
By Msgr. George G. Higgins
April 10, 2000
A friend was kind enough to say in a recent letter that she generally finds “The Yardstick” informative and worth reading, but that she would prefer a wider variety of subject matter. “Your column,” she wrote, “seems almost exclusively labor-related. I am not sure that this is what you want it to be.”
That’s a fair critique. I accept it as such and will be guided by it. On the other hand, something tells me that if I were to go too far in de-emphasizing labor issues, few of my peers in the Catholic press would pick up the torch and run with it. The fact is that labor pretty well has dropped off the radar screen in both the electronic and print media.
As an avid reader of newspapers and magazines, I can think of only a handful of journalists who specialize in labor reporting and fewer still who regularly publish columns and articles about the ethics of labor-management relations.
Television, sadly, is a veritable wasteland in this regard. Even the best of the network anchors and TV talk-show hosts tend to ignore the subject or, when they occasionally take it up, tend to treat it superficially, seldom featuring union representatives as guests, even when the programs deal specifically with labor issues.
There is another reason I tend to emphasize labor issues in “The Yardstick.” I am convinced that we are not likely to have a fully free or democratic society over the long haul without a strong and effective labor movement. I know that this is a minority point of view in the United States at present. But I think it is confirmed by solid historical evidence.
The century just ended — one of the most violent in recorded history — saw the rise of dictatorships on both the left and the right which came into power by first destroying free trade unions. Conversely, communism’s collapse was hastened by the emergence of free trade unions, for example the Solidarity movement in Poland.
Surely it would be idle to expect democracy to come alive and flourish in countries such as communist China unless and until a free trade union movement, similar to Solidarity, comes into being.
A final reason I heavily emphasize labor issues is the growing hostility to unions in Catholic institutions, particularly at present in a number of Catholic hospitals. I know from personal experience that speaking out in favor of unions in this unfriendly atmosphere is the wrong way to go about winning a popularity contest. So be it.
Someone has to be willing to keep saying, in the words of Pope John Paul II’s 1981 encyclical “On Human Labor,” that unions are “an indispensable element of social life.” Someone must also keep saying with the U.S. bishops in their 1986 pastoral on the economy that “we firmly oppose organized efforts, such as those regrettably now seen in this country, to break existing unions and prevent workers from organizing.”
The bishops added that Catholic institutions must be exemplary in supporting Catholic social teaching on the subject of unions.
I wish I could drop the subject of labor or at least de-emphasize it, but I am afraid that I will have to keep coming back to it again until more of my peers are prepared to take up the torch and prepared also, if you will, to take the heat.
The sooner the better, so far as I am concerned. Meanwhile, I promise to take my friend’s advice seriously and to deal, at least now and then, with a wider range of subject matter.