Letter on Worker Participation

Moonrise over the campus skyline

October 28, 2015

Dear Students, Faculty and Staff,

As we begin the second half of the semester, I welcome students back from break and wish everyone well. I write to inform you of a decision that is explained briefly in the paragraph below and more fully in subsequent paragraphs. 

Notre Dame is undertaking a pilot program with selected factories in China for the manufacture of University-licensed products to see if they can meet and sustain worker treatment standards in keeping with Catholic social teaching. The Worker Participation Committee (WPC), consisting of students, faculty and administrative leaders, recommended the pilot program in a report that can be found here. I have accepted the WPC’s recommendation to establish a pilot program, through which Notre Dame seeks to further observance around the world of the full set of workers’ rights recognized by Catholic social teaching. I summarize below the history of Notre Dame’s policy and the reasoning which led to my decision to accept the WPC’s recommendation.

The mission of Notre Dame calls us to live up to high moral standards, even as we admit our limitations and failings. I am proud, then, that under Fr. Edward Malloy, C.S.C., my predecessor, Notre Dame played a leading role in efforts to improve wages and working conditions in factories that manufacture Notre Dame-licensed products. In 1997 we were the first university to adopt a labor code of conduct for such factories. Notre Dame was also a founding member of the Fair Labor Association and a member of the Worker Rights Consortium. Today we remain committed to continuing this tradition of fighting for the rights of workers. 

In Catholic social teaching, work is considered “a fundamental right and good for mankind,” and workers have rights, such as the right to a just wage, reasonable work hours and appropriate rest, safe and healthy working conditions and pensions (Compendium of the Social Doctrine of the Church, 301). Catholic social teaching also recognizes an indispensable right of workers to form associations, such as labor and trade unions, to defend their vital interests and promote social justice (305).

The University of Notre Dame unequivocally recognizes workers’ rights to associate in unions, and so in 2001 it implemented a policy that “prohibit(s) the manufacture of licensed products in all countries, without exception, which do not recognize the legal rights of workers to organize” (Notre Dame Report, February 11, 2000). Factories in eleven countries around the world were precluded by this policy from the manufacture of our licensed products. Among these was the People’s Republic of China, by far the largest in population and manufacturing capacity.

The University’s decision at that time was bold, principled and widely applauded. It was hoped that Notre Dame’s action would encourage other institutions to follow, and that collectively pressure could be put on countries to reform their labor laws. However, as we look back, we find that no other universities have adopted similar policies, and Notre Dame’s action has had no discernable influence on the practices of nations that deny freedom of association. It was reasonable, therefore, for the WPC to ask whether some other policy might be more effective in expressing the values of Notre Dame and furthering the recognition of workers’ rights.

While still holding to the principle that freedom of association ought to be allowed and independent unions permitted, and recognizing that in the People’s Republic of China such rights are denied at the level of national laws and practices, the WPC considered whether there might be other criteria we should employ focused on the policies and practices of particular factories, and whether adopting these criteria might encourage meaningful participation for line-workers in the factories with which we partner. Specifically, the WPC considered the character of communication, consultation and participation in decision-making that these workers enjoyed in factories under consideration. 

The committee selected six factories and hired a non-profit, internationally-recognized organization, Verite, to assist in evaluating these factories. Working with Verite, it formulated a list of 71 criteria on which six selected Chinese factories would be evaluated through on-line and in-person visits. In the assessment, Verite interviewed both management and workers, and great care was taken to ensure the anonymity of responses. In addition, members of the WPC committee traveled to these factories to observe conditions and speak to management and workers. The WPC concluded that two of the six factories met acceptable standards of worker participation as defined by the criteria, two required some improvements and two needed substantial improvements.

On the basis of their extensive deliberations, the committee recommended, first, that Notre Dame undertake a pilot program with factories that met our standards to see if they sustain a standard of performance acceptable to Notre Dame, and we can confidently verify such performance. The University will work with other factories that fell short of our standards to see if they can improve to an acceptable level. Second, Notre Dame should undertake a similar assessment of factories in countries that do allow freedom of association and which have been manufacturing Notre Dame-licensed products. The committee saw that, even with the formal, legal right to form and join an independent union, worker participation may be below what is acceptable, and the University can use its leverage to encourage improvement. Moreover, the review of factories in different countries could establish a useful benchmark as we deliberate about acceptable standards.

Third, the committee recommended that during the pilot program, the University should review and, as necessary, revise Notre Dame’s Licensing Code of Conduct to see if it should address other human rights concerns, whether it should be revised to include a richer understanding of worker participation and, in general, that it reflects the best practices and the principles of Catholic social teaching. Fourth, a forum for continuing campus participation in these deliberations should be established, and a student subcommittee to the WPC should be formed.

Some have written to me urging that I reject these recommendations, arguing that the manufacture of our licensed products in a nation that does not allow freedom of association, which Catholic social teaching calls “an indispensable element of social life”, is morally unacceptable. This is a complex question, and I will summarize my thinking.

In a world that is in many ways morally compromised, we often are faced with vexing questions about the morally acceptable degree and manner of cooperation with imperfect, objectionable practices. The means for evaluating such questions in the Catholic moral tradition comes from what is called the Principle of Cooperation with Evil. According to this teaching, one is not allowed to cooperate with the unjust situation if one intends to support or sustain the injustice. This is called formal cooperation, and it is never morally licit. Certainly, in this case, Notre Dame does not intend to support the prohibition against freedom of association. One must then ask though, whether one contributes something essential to the evil action or situation in question. This would be called immediate material cooperation, and it is not morally licit. Again, it is clear that the prohibition against free association preceded our involvement, and Notre Dame will contribute nothing essential to its enactment or continuation.

Finally, we must ask whether our involvement contributes something, even if that contribution is not essential to the evil action or situation. This is called mediate material cooperation and may be morally justified. It can be argued that Notre Dame’s involvement strengthens the Chinese economy and thereby contributes to the perpetuation of unjust laws. This contribution, however, is clearly insignificant when compared to the whole of the Chinese economy, and so involvement would be mediate and minimal. In such a case, one should then ask whether there are compelling reasons to justify participation, and it seems there clearly are—namely, participation allows us to affirm those factories that have high standards of worker participation, and to encourage other companies to meet these standards. Whether this in fact occurs is something about which a pilot program will give us valuable information.

For these reasons, I have accepted the recommendations of the WPC and directed the pilot program to begin. 

I emphasize that this change in policy in no way signals a lessening of Notre Dame’s commitment to the full set of workers’ rights recognized by Catholic social teaching. On the contrary, with the WPC, we are trying to develop a policy that is as effective as it can be in furthering the recognition of those rights around the world. We will work with factories to encourage worker participation with the hope that, with time, the full set of workers’ rights will be recognized and respected.

I thank the members of the WPC who have worked conscientiously to review our policy, formulate an alternative and engage our campus community in discussions. I also thank those who have, equally conscientiously, expressed criticism of the WPC proposals and have urged me to reject them. Discussion of difficult moral questions is healthy for any community, and particularly welcome here at Notre Dame. The WPC will continue to provide a forum for discussion as we undertake the pilot program.

In Notre Dame,

Rev. John I. Jenkins, C.S.C.