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Perspective

March 31, 2001

The Decline of Labor Unions
Humane Principles Regarding Work Still Hold Force

NEW YORK (Zenit.org) - With the old manufacturing-based economy long dead in Western countries, trade union numbers have declined in recent years. Apart from public sector employees, many areas are now virtually union-free.

Last year in the United States the percentage of the work force belonging to a union declined to 13.5%, the lowest level since the government started collecting this information in 1983. The unions' share of private-sector workers fell to a record low of 9% last year from 9.5% the year before, while its share of government workers inched up to 37.5% from 37.3%, the Wall Street Journal reported Jan. 19. The total number of union members slipped to 16.3 million from 16.5 million in 1999.

The decline comes as organized labor poured unprecedented amounts of human and financial resources into last year's elections, only to see Republicans win control of the White House and keep control of both houses of Congress.

In Europe, the Financial Times reported March 9, some are asking if trade unions are heading for extinction. This fear comes from no less than the European Trade Union Confederation, which recently published a 713-page report on the issue. The study concluded that unions in most Western European countries are failing to modernize and to restructure themselves sufficiently in order to survive in a changing economy.

In Germany, union representatives can be found in only 6% of workplaces and a third of the country's trade union members are either retired or unemployed. In France, the study says, the unions are "in the throes of a crisis deeper than ever before," which is "moral" and "affects the very foundations of their legitimacy." In Spain, unions "will be increasingly submerged in civil society" alongside "ecologists, feminists, pacifists and anti-racists."

Only in the Nordic countries is the position less desperate. Most workers in the region are union members, and unions are partners in the development of social market models.

One attempt made by unions in Germany to adapt to changing circumstances is the recent merger of five service-sector unions. The Financial Times reported March 20 the creation of the Ver.di, a united services union, which brings together nearly 3 million members from 1,000 different professions, including musicians, trash men, journalists, bankers and stewardesses.

Most independent analysts agreed that the merger was not "born out of strength." Professor Berndt Keller, a trade union expert at the University of Konstanz, pointed toward unions' rapidly deteriorating finances as perhaps the most important reason for a merger. "All the Ver.di unions, with the possible exception of the DAG [the white-collar union], are in financial difficulties due to their loss of membership," he said.

Some see the decline of unions as positive. This is often tied up with political opinions, since unions often are allied with political parties: in Britain and Australia with the Labor Party, in the United States with the Democrats, and in continental Europe with the left-of-center parties. Others oppose unions on economic grounds, arguing that they obstruct businesses from being able to adapt to changing circumstances.

Protection still lacking

The decline of unions, however, doesn't signal a golden age for employees. Even in the so-called new economy, problems still exist. For example, while phone-call centers have created up to 400,000 jobs in Britain, work conditions are often very difficult, the Independent reported Feb. 25.

The newspaper told of "Tom," who went straight from school to a local call center. While he was glad to find a job, Tom observed that "I'm working 12 hours straight, five days a week, answering call after call. It's sales support, and I'm getting lots of customer complaints to deal with."

Some employees in call centers are forced to go into work to report in sick, instead of being able to phone in, the Independent reported. In some centers, workers have to put their hands up to go to the lavatory -- and then are monitored for how long they spend there.

Another source of problems is the move to a greater use of part-timers in recent years. In many cases part-timers don't receive holidays or sick pay, and it is more difficult for them to obtain a mortgage from a bank.

Important principles

How should workers be treated? In his encyclical "Laborem Exercens" John Paul II starts by putting work into a supernatural context. Work is not something incidental, but "a fundamental dimension of man's existence on earth" (No. 4). Through our work, affirmed the Pope, we are reflecting our condition as God's image by fulfilling the instruction given in the Book of Genesis to subdue the earth.

John Paul II speaks of a "Gospel of work," which is opposed to a materialistic conception whereby workers are considered merely as some kind of productive tool. Workers should be considered as the subject of work and as "its true creator and maker" (No. 7).

As a consequence, labor should have priority over natural resources and the processes of economic production. This is so even when the work being performed is unskilled. John Paul II explains that even the most perfect collection of instruments is subordinate to human labor (No. 12). He insists on "the principle of the primacy of person over things" (No. 13).

The priority of the human factor is more evident in the modern economy, the Pope noted in his later encyclical "Centesimus Annus." At one time, land was the principal source of wealth, but nowadays "the role of human work is becoming increasingly important as the productive factor both of nonmaterial and of material wealth" (No. 31).

While the Church's social teaching acknowledges the positive role of economic considerations in deciding how to run a business, making a profit is not the only factor to take into consideration. "It is possible for the financial accounts to be in order, and yet for the people -- who make up the firm's most valuable asset -- to be humiliated and their dignity offended" (No. 35).

Where, then, does this leave trade unions? Their traditional role as the guardians of workers' rights could disappear. Or they could be forced to radically change their present structures and methods. They may even have to revise their fixed alliances to a single political party, perhaps something redundant in an age when the economic policies of the different groupings are increasingly similar and when the socioeconomic divisions of parties are no longer as clear as in past decades.

"Man is the source, the focus and the end of all economic and social life," stated the Second Vatican Council document "Gaudium et Spes," No. 63. How to safeguard this principle is open to debate. As the circumstances differ from place to place, so also will the solutions as to how workers should be treated. But the principle remains unchanged.

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Buddhas´ Destruction Offended Some Afghans, Too
Rival Muslim Forces Aim to Depose Taliban Leaders

KABUL, Afghanistan (Zenit.org) - This week Taliban officials showed to foreigners what remained of the two statues of Buddha, carved into the mountainside near the town of Bamiyan. The carvings, done in the third and fifth centuries, were destroyed on orders of the Afghan rulers who considered them idolatrous.

The towering sandstone statues are now piles of rubble, the Associated Press reported March 26. At 170 feet, the larger of the two was believed to have been the world's tallest standing Buddha.

"First, we destroyed the small statue; it was a woman," Taliban commander Abdul Haidi told the reporters taken to the area. "Then we blew up her husband, the big statue."

The destruction of the two statues not only provoked protests from Buddhists, but also from Islamic countries, which issued appeals to the Taliban to spare the statues, saying their presence in Afghanistan did not offend Islam because they were no longer worshipped. Even Taliban's closest ally, Pakistan, pleaded for the preservation of the statues.

Inside the Taliban mind

Many have speculated on the motives behind the destruction of the statues. Some think the Taliban leaders are annoyed with the sanctions imposed by the United States and the United Nations, and this spurred an outburst of anger. Others point to the radical interpretation of Islam followed by the Afghan rulers, honed by years of fierce combat against the Russians and internal rivals.

The April 2 Newsweek said that Mullah Nooruddin Turabi, the Taliban's Minister of Justice, asked by a reporter about the decision to blow up the statues, simply commented, "We have obeyed the order of Allah by destroying the idols." Not all Taliban members are in agreement, however. Newsweek quoted an anonymous Taliban official as saying, "It would have been better if they had killed my child instead of destroying our heritage."

Newsweek noted other recent Taliban decisions that reflect a shift toward extreme positions. The Taliban leader, Mullah Mohammed Omar, issued an edict in January requiring death for any Muslim who converts to Christianity or Judaism. Then, a week after the demolition of the Buddhas, Taliban authorities banned the celebration of Nauroz, the Afghan New Year, saying it was a tradition of infidels.

Muslim moderates and scholars in other nations say the Taliban leaders are wrong, the Wall Street Journal reported March 20. Egypt's highest Muslim authority, Grand Mufti Nasr Farid Wasel, joined prominent Qatar scholar Sheik Youssef al-Qaradawi and others in an emergency mission to urge the regime to reconsider the destruction of the statues.

An Afghan scholar in the United States, Amin Tarzi, charges that his homeland's rulers feed off the people's "illiteracy and lack of knowledge of traditional Islamic teachings." Professor Anis Ahmed of Pakistan's Islamic University observed that some tenets come from literal interpretation of the Koran, the Muslim scripture. "If you take things literally, that will lead to extremism," he noted.

According to the Wall Street Journal, the Muslim world has largely spurned the Taliban. The Organization of the Islamic Conference refuses to admit the regime, and only three of the 56 member nations (Pakistan, Saudi Arabia and United Arab Emirates) grant it recognition. Even neighboring Iran, whose 1979 revolution energized militant Islamists worldwide, spurns the Taliban, though that hostility stems from the latter's alleged persecution of fellow Shiite Muslims. Islam's larger Sunni branch dominates in Afghanistan.

Taliban means "students," and many followers attended conservative Muslim schools in Pakistan as refugees during the 1979-89 Soviet occupation of Afghanistan. Many studied at Dar-ul Uloom Haqqani in Akora Khattak, one of Pakistan's largest Muslim campuses.

The Taliban follow the severe Deobandi school, named for Deoband, an Indian town where 1,000 students from many nations train to teach and lead mosques at the influential, 140-year-old Dar-ul Uloom.

Under the Taliban rules, all music is prohibited, except religious song unaccompanied by instruments. Television, movies and videos are also banned. Men's attendance at mosque is enforced by rifle-toting soldiers. And paper bags are illegal for fear recycled paper would include discarded copies of the Koran.

The international protests over the decision to destroy the statues do not seem to have fazed the Taliban. The Washington Post reported March 20 that 10 days after they began, the demolition authorities slaughtered 100 cows and distributed the meat to the poor in an Islamic ritual of atonement. The animal sacrifice, declared the Taliban, was meant to seek Allah's forgiveness for having taken several days more than expected to destroy the statues.

The Times newspaper March 23 said the radicalization of the Taliban is explained by the increasing dominance of fighters linked to Osama bin Laden, the international terrorist sought by the United States. The fighters appear to have taken control after moderates were pushed aside in the latest power struggle.

The Saudi-born terrorist's allies are suspected of having ordered the recent destruction of Afghanistan's ancient Buddhist statues, reported the Times. Some sources believe that Mullah Omar, who in the past acted as arbiter between extremists and moderates, has been forced to support hard-liners who want the regime to adopt more radical Islamist policies. In fact, Omar's latest edict on the statues contravened his earlier order in 1999, which assured the preservation of all ancient relics.

The decision on the statues comes at a time when Taliban fighters are under pressure in northern Afghanistan from rebel forces led by Ahmed Shah Massoud, who is supplied by Iran. Anti-Taliban feeling is also strengthening in Kabul and some other parts of the country because of the worsening economy after a long drought.

If this interpretation is correct, then things may not improve in the coming months. The Sunday Times reported March 25 that Massoud has pledged to launch a new offensive to rid the country of its Taliban leadership.

After the Soviet withdrawal in 1989, Massoud lost out during years of factional fighting and is now penned up in the north of Afghanistan by Taliban forces, while his men control pockets of territory near Kabul, the capital. In an interview with the Sunday Times, Massoud vowed to break the military stalemate by campaigning against the Taliban on several fronts.

Days later, on March 29, the Telegraph newspaper reported that this week Massoud's forces attacked Bamiyan, the town where the Taliban destroyed the two statues. Forces from the Hazara ethnic group loyal to Massoud are trying to recapture Bamiyan. The Hazara are Shiite Muslims and bitterly opposed to the Taliban.

The Telegraph said the most serious threat to the Taliban could emerge in western Afghanistan, where the widely respected anti-Taliban commander Ismail Khan, who has been in exile in Iran for two years, is expected to open a new front.

In the midst of all these conflicts the civil population continues to suffer extreme hardships, and neighboring Pakistan is now closing its border to any more refuges. The outlook for the coming months seems grim.

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