Do YOU know what someone suffered to make your shirt?
Letter to the editor
While most of us will enjoy the heroic victories organized labor has afforded us — seniority, the forty-hour work week, fair and safe working conditions and adequate health benefits — we sometimes forget the sacrifices made by American workers so that we could sustain a comfortable lifestyle.
More importantly, let us remember that the struggle continues. In many cases, the workers who harvest the food we eat, sew the clothes we wear and clean the bathrooms we use face injustice on a daily basis. Favoritism, discrimination, unsafe and unhealthy working conditions, inadequate healthcare, meager wages, threat of workplace relocation and outsourcing and long hours prevent these workers from achieving dignity in their careers.
As a result, the labor movement has undertaken organizing as its active priority. This summer, I assisted some of these workers in their struggles toward justice. As a union organizer, I witnessed workers who chose to stand together for justice and let their voices be heard. Exploitative wages. Toxic fumes. Dangerous materials. Serious infection and respiratory complications from working conditions. No safety equipment. Red, glassy eyes, skin black from soot, feet tired after standing for 16 hours. Filthy working conditions. No lunch breaks or accessible water in factories where temperatures often exceeded 110 degrees. Pregnant women bending over to carry heavy boxes. No health insurance. Racial discrimination. Sexual harassment. Intimidation. Fortunately, through unionization, these men and women not only eradicated such horrid conditions but achieved a new found dignity and sense of self-empowerment.
You may wonder ... where are these horrific sweatshops? Did I spend my summer in the Maquiladoras? Indonesia? El Salvador? No, in Detroit, Mich. These conditions exist in our own cities, our own communities and, quite possibly, on our own campus. As socially conscious Catholics, we must strive to ensure justice for all members of our society by demonstrating responsible consumerism, ethical business practices and respecting the workers in our economy.
I write to you from Detroit, where I join thousands of working men and women to take part in a festival celebrating the most important social movement in America, the Labor Movement. As I reflect on what the Movement means to my life, I come to realize that without my mother and father's union contracts, attending Notre Dame would have been financially out of the question.
On this Labor Day, I ask you to reflect upon the inequities in our own nation, but also to remember those who have been exploited due to the inadequacies of Notre Dame's Licensing Code of Conduct. We ought to remember the words of Pope John Paul II, "The experience of history teaches us that organizations of this type are an indispensable element of social life, especially in modern industrialized societies."
If in improving our University's Code of Conduct our genuine interest is in fact the exploited worker, then we must do our utmost to guarantee workers the fundamental right of good faith collective bargaining. Who knows better than the workers themselves what constitutes a living wage and what improvements or safeguards in that sweatshop are needed? Unless we empower these workers with this right, our actions are merely selfish and face-saving.
As you sit in class today, perhaps wearing "the shirt" or sporting your new Adidas, think for one moment what the worker may have endured for your benefit. As Catholic entrepreneurs, leaders, students, educators and workers, we must make economic decisions keeping in mind human life and dignity.
Government and International Studies
September 6, 1999
All Viewpoint Stories for Monday, September 6, 1999