Unrestricted global trade has created a bad deal for workers that goes against moral teaching about justice and human rights, the president of the 13 million-member AFL-CIO said in Buffalo on Monday.
John J. Sweeney, the head of the U.S. labor organization, reminded an audience at Canisius College that positions built on morality and faith aren't exclusive to the religious right.
Growing up the child of Irish immigrants in the Bronx, "I came to understand that work is a way we worship," Sweeney said.
Pope John Paul II's support for Poland's Solidarity movement in the 1980s built on a long history of Catholic teaching that supports rights of workers to organize and to obtain a living wage, Sweeney said.
But in the U.S., labor's progress toward a better society has been halted by corporate power, he said. "Somewhere along the road to prosperity we let down our guard."
Many economists argue to the contrary that trade's benefits for consumers outweigh its costs for workers who are displaced by shifts of production.
Quoting papal pronouncements and drawing on his own Catholic upbringing, Sweeney argued that the results of globalism contradict Church teaching. Instead of honoring work and building a better society, corporations are profiting at the expense of discarded workers in the U.S. and oppressed workers abroad, he said.
"We see the results of globalism in Western New York," with the loss of thousands of jobs, he said. "Islands of wealth are being created in a sea of misery."
A mix of about 230 students, activists and local union officials attended the talk in Canisius' Montante Cultural Center, Sweeney's first visit to Buffalo in nearly 10 years as AFL-CIO president. The event was sponsored by former congressman John J. LaFalce, now a Canisius professor, and by campus and labor groups.
The son of a New York City bus driver, Sweeney, 70, was elected president of the AFL-CIO in 1995 after heading the Service Employees International Union.
Sweeney is embattled on several fronts, facing an unsympathetic Republican administration in Washington and a split within labor's own ranks.
The AFL-CIO opposed President Bush's re-election and is fighting his administration's efforts to change Social Security and to expand the NAFTA free trade zone to Central America.
Sweeney faces his own re-election in July and a possible challenge by leaders of about 40 percent of the AFL-CIO membership over organizing strategy.
The trends that he said were bad for workers have also hurt the labor organization. Over the past 10 years, unions have lost 1 million members, shrinking their share of the U.S. work force to 12.5 percent, from 15.5 percent, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics.
In the Buffalo-Niagara area about 25 percent of workers are unionized, one of the highest concentrations among U.S. metropolitan areas. Sweeney said his trip to Buffalo comes as part of his outreach efforts in advance of the AFL-CIO election.
Outside the Montante Center on Main Street, members of the communications workers' union distributed leaflets against Verizon Wireless, whose chief executive Denny Strigl is a Canisius trustee. They called for college president Rev. Vincent M. Cooke to push Strigl for a meeting on what they said was discrimination against union supporters within the company.
Audience members under the Montante Center's church-like vaulted ceiling expressed differing reactions to Sweeney.
"I think he touched the hearts of people in here," said Daniel Boody, president of the AFL-CIO Area Labor Federation, a unit of the New York State labor organization. The talk was the best of several that he has heard Sweeney give, he said.
To say globalism is one-sidedly harmful would be an oversimplification, said Sister Bea Manzella of the Sisters of St. Joseph community, an educator and anti-sweatshop advocate. "There are positives -- it's helping to bring the world together," she said before Sweeney's speech.
Dan Healy, a retired local TV writer and producer, said he was curious to know how much the AFL-CIO has done to lift conditions for workers abroad. "Globalism is here to stay . . . what are we doing to export the labor movement to these other countries," the Buffalo resident said.
A lack of rules to protect labor rights leads to the unfairness of global trade, Sweeney said, since workers aren't free to organize and obtain a just wage in many parts of the world.
Quoting Pope John Paul II, he said, " 'Globalization . . . is neither good nor bad -- it will be what people make of it.' "