Labor Day Homily
St. Raphael's Cathedral Dubuque, Iowa - September 3, 1979

Almost twenty years ago, I visited a small commercial plant in Beaumont, Texas. One of several in a chain owned by the Coburn Plumbing Supply Company established by Albert Coburn in Texas and Louisiana along the Gulf Coast. Albert Coburn was a Catholic who had successfully practiced the principles of justice in labor relations enunciated in the great social encyclicals of the modern popes, especially Pope Leo XIII and Pius XI. After touring the Coburn plant at Beaumont with the owner, I returned with him to his office. It was nearly the end of the working day. He said to me: "We shall close in about fifteen minutes. Now watch the secretarial pool" (which I could see through a window in his office). No sooner had he said this than some of the secretaries who had completed their work for the day began to circulate around the office. If one discovered another secretary whose work was not yet finished, she would begin to assist her. Movement continued in the large area of the secretarial pool until all work was completed and, shortly after five o'clock, all the secretaries left together.

Mr. Coburn had already explained to me that his employees felt a kind of ownership of the company. The end-of-the-day actions of the secretaries displayed this. Why did they feel proprietary about the firm which employed them? Because, in the first place, Albert Coburn demanded of his managers that they show great personal respect for each employee, no matter how menial the employee's task might be. Respect for the individual and for the individual's work was a hallmark of the company.

In the second place, Mr. Coburn believed strongly in the teaching of Leo XIII, Pius XI, and Pius XII that the ownership of private property is the key to a person's social stability, serenity, and indeed to the person's very freedom. Mr. Coburn was thus one of the earliest to establish a profit-sharing plan for all of his employees. His was a clean and straightforward plan through which every worker received a share of the profits of his/her labor. Mr. Coburn argued that this sharing in profits was not a gift but something which belonged to his employees by right. Every December, then, the workers received a sizeable check based on their years of service and the company's performance for that year -- their rightful shares of the net income which their efforts had helped bring about. Managers received stock shares which were immediately redeemable for cash according the individual manager's preference or need. It is almost unnecessary to add that the corporation flourished year by year and maintained a reputation for dependability and integrity.

This has been a long narrative, for the length of which I apologize. The substance of the story however, is a practical illustration of truths which we as Catholics should consider on this national holiday. The first is that every human being enjoys an individual dignity that God himself has bestowed. We know this because God became man to proclaim the dignity of every human being. Anyone of us can thrust aside his personal worth by willful misconduct, but no individual's dignity may be justifiably taken from his by another or by any human agency. The dignity of the individual requires respect -- and this especially when one assesses the value of his labor. Pope Leo XIII declared that workers are not be to treated as slaves; justice demands that the dignity of human personality be respected in them, ennobled as it has been through what we call the Christian character." He continued: "it is shameful and inhuman to use men as things for gain and to put no more value on them than what they are worth in muscle and energy."

Labor, therefore, is also noble because it is the personal effort of one who is by God's design noble in himself. Any form of labor which flows from an upright conscience and which promotes the good of the individual and of society is praiseworthy, even sacred. Christ our Lord exemplified this in the manual labor which he himself undertook; and so, as Pius XII said, he "ennobles every honest work, be it high or low, great or little, pleasant or tiresome, material or intellectual." All true work glorifies the Father in heaven and leads the worker, according to Pope John XXIII, to his own perfection and to the attainment of that eternal life for which he was made. Indeed, the ability to work, and the occasions to do so, are gifts of God. Those who are gainfully employed in just labor, even if it is menial, should often reflect that theirs is a possibility that is denied to many others, whether because of age, illness, or unjust social conditions.

A principal social teaching of the Roman Pontiffs, beginning with Leo XIII's stunning encyclical Rerum Novarum, issued in 1891, is that just remuneration for labor is a natural right that may not be abided without grievous sin. The modern pontiffs have defended the rights of laborers to form unions and to enter into collective bargaining, have taught that the state has a critical obligation to defend these rights, and have insisted that employers have a corresponding obligation to enter into just negotiations with representatives of their employees. The right to form labor unions, as Leo XIII taught, is based on a most fundamental right arising out of the very law of nature, namely, that every worker is entitled to a just wage. It is not enough to say that worker and owner should enter into a contract concerning the amount of the wage. There is, he says, a greater and more ancient right than the free consent of contracting parties, namely, the worker's right to a wage that shall be enough to support a worker who is thrifty and upright. If the worker is forced to accept less than the living wage because of circumstances beyond his control, then, the Pontiff declares: "He submits to force against which justice cries out in protest."

As all of us who have had an opportunity to study Catholic social doctrine know, a worker's "just wage" must be sufficient to support the worker and the worker's family with stability, basic comfort, and absence of the fear that basic material necessities may be suddenly taken away, and even with an abundance that might be employed in the works of charity. We remind ourselves on this Labor Day that we are each responsible to provide such a wage for those whom we employ and to defend where possible the rights of those who in this matter are suffering injustice.

Undergirding the Church's social doctrines is a teaching which is too little noticed -- that everyone ought to possess private property. We need to be quite clear about this. The popes of the twentieth century have taught consistently that the Church wants every man and woman to have a ready opportunity to become a property holder! The Church desires this because the ownership of private property is a natural right, a right that belongs to every person be virtue of the individual's human dignity and not because of any concession by public authority. This is the individual's natural right because everyone is responsible for his own livelihood and destiny, because men and women are responsible for the families which they decide to form, and because everyone is bound to contribute personally to the common good. John XXIII put the matter forcefully: "The right of private property, including the goods that are used for production, is permanently valid. Indeed, it is rooted in the very nature of things, whereby we learn that individuals are prior to civil society, and hence that civil society is to be directed toward man as its end" and not the other way around.

Pius XII was especially concerned about the relationship between private ownership and the good of the family. Borrowing a phrase from European politics, he called private property the "vital space" of the family. He said: "if today the concept and the creation of vital spaces is at the center of social and political aims, should not one, before all else, think of the vital space of the family?" ". . . Should we not eliminate those obstacles which do not permit some even to formulate the idea of having their own homes?" Perhaps those of us who are charged with teaching Catholic doctrine have been remiss in our failure to proclaim this doctrinal position of Catholicism. We need to be vigorous in promoting the truth that everyone should be offered a solid possibility of becoming, through personal effort, a proprietor, an owner, an investor in property which he holds with clear title.

On occasions such as Labor Day, I always experience a moment of profound gratitude to Almighty God that I am an American citizen. We have serious problems in our country; and there are far too many laborers, even among the middle classes, who are treated with injustice. But R is still true that our country has moved closer to the ideals of social justice than has almost any other. In large measure, as I know that history will prove, this is because some of the principles taught by modern popes and American bishops have been practiced on a wide scale. Many Catholic labor leaders and many Catholic industrialists have been well aware of the social encyclicals and have tried to adapt their teachings to contemporary American society. Especially among leaders in the large labor unions, there is a veritable pantheon of Catholic leaders for most of whose works we can be justifiably proud.

There have been many like Albert Coburn. Men and women who acknowledge the dignity of the human person and therefore reverence the dignity of the just work which originates in the human personality. Men and women who see that even common labor is ennobling when it flows from a clear conscience. Men and women who know that the laborer has a natural right to the product of his work, even to the point of sharing fully in the profits of a modern industrial enterprise, despite any disclaimers of pure capitalism to the contrary. Men and women, finally, who profess that the very good of society and of the individual who contributes to it arises from the security and the satisfaction of achieving ownership in one's own right through one's own good effort. Today, we salute all of those men and women who constitute the responsible labor force in the United States. In praising them -- more, in thanking them -- may all of us commit ourselves to those sound Catholic doctrines, teaching of our faith, which foster the laborer's welfare. May we be diligent in applying them practically in our own time and place.

Sermons and Lectures by Damian Fandal, O.P.