For the most part, Americans are rather forward looking. They are optimistic and ready to take on the future. That is a good trait but it comes at a cost. As a nation, most of us are not overly interested in history. Here I pass up the temptation to use that tired, hackneyed expression about who is going to repeat it, but you know what I mean. One thing that most Americans are not familiar with is the history of organized labor. It is a great story of courage, heroism, some violence and, for a while, a period of triumph…but only for a while.
Labor has been in the news quite a bit of late but almost always in a negative light. Dues paying members have dropped dramatically over the last 25 years and the only area where successful organizing has been occurring is in the public sector unions. Realizing that, the opponents of organized labor have moved effectively to undercut and, if possible, break the backs of the public sector unions. For the last two years, we have seen a number of states move to block organizing efforts by their employees, cancel pensions, cut back benefits and blame the working people for the economic problems that these states face. I am saddened by the fact that while all this is going on the voice of the Church has been strangely silent.
First in Germany and then across Europe and the United States, the Roman Catholic Church espoused the cause of the working people and stood staunchly beside them as they struggled in the face of overwhelming odds. Although Leo XIII strongly supported workers rights to organize in 1899, American workers did not get that legal right until 1935 with the passage of the Wagner Act. Following the passage of that act, labor unions grew enormously in this country. Secretaries of Labor in the Democratic Administration were staunch supporters and bishops and priests became very public in their endorsement of working people’s right to better their economic condition. Things were going wonderfully well and then labor made a terrible mistake from which it has not yet recovered.
More on that tomorrow.