On All Souls’ Day, November 2, 1987, Cesar Chavez, founder of
the Farm Workers Union, talked about the evils of pesticides to a
standing-room-only audience at St. John’s University. Teamsters
Union officials were present, yet, despite the sharp disagreements
between those unions at the time, the Teamsters joined in the
applause and congratulated Chavez for his inspirational remarks.
Cesar told me immediately thereafter that his brief time at St.
John’s was one of the most gratifying and engaging days he had
enjoyed in some years.
On behalf of the entire St. John’s community, I hope that "The
Theology of Work and the Dignity of Workers Conference" will be
gratifying and engaging for you. This St. John’s Conference is not
the first to examine these themes. I am especially grateful to Rev.
Dr. John A. Perricone for “Catholic Theology of Work and Worship,”
73 St. John’s Law Review 821 (1999). A half century ago, my father,
an illiterate Appalachian coal miner and moonshiner working in
Detroit as a butcher, took me to a parade. It was not nearly as
grand as New York City’s annual St. Patrick’s Day parade, but it
was a parade that he knew I should see. I caught a fleeting but
indelible glimpse of the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. and
Walter Reuther, President of the United Auto Workers, arms linked,
walking up Woodward Avenue in front of, what seemed to a small boy,
the entire world. Little did I know it at the time, but that
fleeting glimpse inspired my life’s work, of which this Conference,
a half century later, is a part. And, among our distinguished
speakers is the current President of the UAW, Bob King, a worthy
successor to the great visionary Reuther.
The Scriptures are replete with stories and parables about work.
The Catholic Theology of Work is fulfilled in Jesus Christ, as
Priest, Prophet, and King; in contemporary terms, these are
instances of knowledge-based analytical and intellectual work.
Carpentry, a valuable skilled trade, gave Jesus immediate
credibility with the workers who followed Him. The Genesis story of
creation grounds the Theology of Work of the world’s great
monotheistic religions. The Benedictine foundation of monasticism,
the Catholic Worker, and Opus Dei are but three of the
manifestations demonstrating how work can be an instrument of
sanctification. The Dignity of Workers seems self-evident; that is,
does anyone seriously argue against the Dignity of Workers? Yet,
President Obama says that unions are “under assault.” Wage and hour
claims proliferate. Millions of workers are not paid their just
wages. Structural underfunded public sector pensions threaten to
bankrupt state governments, and to leave public sector workers and
retirees bereft. The minimum wage is insufficient, and the living
wage initiative has had a fitful contemporary history.
The social contract is badly shredded in many quarters. And, what
of the unemployed; and, the millions more underemployed?
Immigration intersects powerfully with the Conference themes; the
Catholic Bishops, including Bishop Nicholas DiMarzio, are in the
forefront of the immigration debates. For those fortunate enough to
work, many report that they are working beyond exhaustion, holding
down two or three jobs in chronic sleep deprivation. Leisure, and
time for family and friends, is more elusive than ever.
The challenges and opportunities are many. How does the Theology of
Work inform the Dignity of Workers? How can we make timely the
timeless Truth? In the spirit of Cesar Chavez, how can we go in
peace to make peace? May your heart’s desire—and the vocation
that brings you to this Conference—be renewed for the important
Dorothy Day Professor of Law
Executive Director, Center for Labor and Employment Law
St. John's School of Law