Unions, Organizing and Jubilee Justice
For A More Just and Humane World
Playing poker in the lunchroom, my dad boasted, "Yeah, I told you Randy would never cut it — he was here one week and left whining about his swollen hands. Or Tic's kid; not like his old man. He made it only three days with me and left the dock for a job at McDonald's."
I kept my cards and my fears to myself. Loading trucks was my dad's work. Not that he liked it, but he worked hard and he expected his "runner" to work harder. Some days he worked three jobs, working 24 hours straight to put his six children through Catholic schools. But now I was working with him. I had just gotten accepted into Notre Dame, and knew it was now my responsibility to pay my way. My dad's contribution was "to get me in" to work on the docks. Given my dad's integrity, I knew he'd work me harder than anyone he'd worked with before — no favoritism here — if he busted on Tic's kid, he'd bust on his own. He had a reputation to keep up.
He also kept on me because I was underage, and not in the union. My dad was a Teamster, as were most of the men on the dock. And as a casual worker, I was, in effect, a scab. Lucky for me, most guys hated the union more than they hated my dad. As "Billy's kid," I was razzed until I figured out the job, and proved I could keep up.
But the ambiguity toward the union puzzled me. My father received health and pension benefits from the union. His wages were better than at non-union companies, and, in fact, the union had saved his and others' jobs in the past when the company tried to bust the contract. So why the antipathy?
I learned on the docks, and I've learned since graduating, the value of organizing, whether on the job or in the community. Organizing brings strength; it puts you at the table where the decisions are made. But if you're not careful, it can also cause corruption.
That's the attitude I perceived from my fellow workers and my dad. "The union's as corrupt as the company," they'd complain, and in part, they were right. But they weren't ready to give it up — without it, they'd have no protection and they knew it. They were cautious when the federal government stepped in to address the questionable links to the mob, as well as the use of their pension funds. Their excitement began to grow as new leadership emerged and began to make the union more visible, and more accessible. Now leadership has changed again, but this time the union has turned a curve. Growth is projected and workers are confident. But how will labor escape the pitfalls of the past?
Work is more than income. In the first chapter of the first book shared in the Jewish and Christian tradition, the human person is lifted up as the most sacred part of creation. Created in God's image and likeness, we are called to be in relationship with God as co-creators through our labor.
Through The Book of Confessions, the Presbyterian tradition teaches that work binds us in family and community. The Methodist Book of Resolutions teaches that "society should provide employment under safe and decent conditions so that the dignity of workers can be elevated and their creativity exercised."
In the Catholic tradition, Pope John Paul II's Encyclical On the Hundredth Anniversary of Rerum Novarum outlines how the Catholic Social Traditions penned 100 years prior by Leo XIII, were still relevant; indeed, were still urgent in the modern economy. He writes "… it is still possible today, as in the days of Rerum Novarum, to speak of inhuman exploitation. In spite of great changes … the human inadequacies of capitalism and the resulting domination of things over people are far from disappearing." Instead, the goal of a Christian society is to build up "a more decent life through united labor, of concretely enhancing every individual's dignity and creativity, as well as his capacity to respond to his personal vocation, and thus to God's call."
John Paul reminds us specifically of the Second Vatican Council teachings on labor in the encyclical, On Human Work. When a person "… works, he not only alters things and society, he develops himself as well. This kind of growth is of greater value than any external riches which can be garnered …" For this to be realized, trade unions have a concrete role to play in society writes the Pope. "It is always to be hoped that, thanks to the work of their unions, workers will not only have more, but above all be more: in other words that they will realize their humanity more fully in every respect."
This week, three Notre Dame students will be returning from a national interfaith conference organized by religious and labor leaders to discuss new partnerships to promote and enhance the dignity of workers around the globe. It is in partnerships like these that the unions have their future. And if this conference is any indication, they, like their religious counterparts, are beginning to understand this.
Key religious leaders, such as Monsignor George Higgins, or Monsignor Jack Egan, have long called on labor to formulate a deeper understanding of human nature, and a more thorough appreciation of Catholic Social Traditions. Unions are now responding. And they are challenging the church leaders to a more sophisticated analysis of the global economy and of organizing for power. The alliance is tentative, but coming together in the next millennium offers the hope that "Economic Justice for All" might move from the written page to become economic reality for the working poor, as well as the poorest of the poor.
Together, labor unions and the church are positioned to provide a meaningful bulwark for families across the globe faced with the "inadequacies of capitalism." These include desperate families depending on labor in sweatshops, the poor who have seen jobs disappear from the inner cities of America, or those middle-aged white men who have lost their jobs to corporate downsizing.
So you might rightly ask if I'll show this article to my father. I can see him reading it aloud to the other workers, laughing about the sacredness of loading freight onto trucks at 2 a.m. But I remain undeterred — a little piece of my father went out on every truck he loaded the night before. That he was not treated with dignity you can see in his calloused hands, his swollen feet and a hardened attitude.
As for the poker game, well, I guess I was finally "called" and now I have shown my hand in favor of the workers. A Catholic notion of Jubilee Justice requires no less of each of us.
Jay Caponigro is a '91 ND grad in Government and International Studies. He is currently Director of Urban Programs and Justice Education at the Center for Social Concerns where he plays a key role in "calling us all to service and action for a more just and humane world."
For a More Just and Humane World is a bi-weekly column sponsored by the Center for Social Concerns. Comments and discussions are welcome at ND.firstname.lastname@example.org.
The views expressed in this column are those of the author and not necessarily those of the Observer.
All Viewpoint Stories for Thursday, October 14, 1999