Bishop Stephen E. Blaire of Stockton, California wrote this year’s Labor Day Statement for the USCCB. It includes some great reflections on a key Catholic social teaching principle: the dignity of work. Here are six notable quotes from the document, with a brief reflection after each.
Labor Day is an opportunity to take stock of the ways workers are honored and respected. Earlier this year, Pope Francis pointed out, “Work is fundamental to the dignity of a person. . . . It gives one the ability to maintain oneself, one’s family, to contribute to the growth of one’s own nation.” Unfortunately, millions of workers today are denied this honor and respect as a result of unemployment, underemployment, unjust wages, wage theft, abuse, and exploitation.
Lots of ideas in this one short paragraph. Pope Francis’ quote highlights how one’s work is deeply bound up with one’s dignity. Through work, we’re not merely building up the world, but co-creating with God. We are created in God’s image and likeness; God is at work; we share in that work.
Bishop Blaire also names a number of threats to the dignity of work. The two that grab me are underemployment and unjust wages. Sometimes, just having a job is not enough. Just wages allow a worker to make enough money to provide her or his family with the necessities required for human life.
The dignity of the individual and the demands of justice require, particularly today, that economic choices do not cause disparities in wealth to increase in an excessive and morally unacceptable manner…
Here, Bishop Blaire quotes a pope who writes so well on poverty and income inequality. It’s a quote by…Pope Benedict XVI, from Caritas in Veritate (no. 32). We see this disparity within our own communities, separated by neighborhoods or city boundaries. It takes just 15 minutes to travel from Camden, one of the poorest cities in the country, to Moorestown, NJ, which was named the best place to live in the country in 2005.
What kind of response is called for?
The current imbalances are not inevitable, but demand boldness in promoting a just economy that reduces inequality by creating jobs that pay a living wage and share with workers some profits of the company. It also requires ensuring a strong safety net for jobless workers and their families and those who are incapable of work.
Some basic guiding principles from Bishop Blaire for resetting our nation’s economic priorities: make sure the minimum wage is a living wage, allow workers to share in a company’s profits, create a “circle of protection” around government programs that support those who are unemployed and those who are unable to work.
As individuals and families, as the Church, as community organizations, as businesses, as government, we all have a responsibility to promote the dignity of work and to honor workers’ rights.
Whose job is this? Everyone’s. It is not just up to the government, or just up to churches, or up to businesses. The responsibility for building an economy that serves people belongs to all.
Since the end of the Civil War, unions have been an important part of our economy because they provide protections for workers and more importantly a way for workers to participate in company decisions that affect them. Catholic teaching has consistently affirmed the right of workers to choose to form a union…The Church, in accord with her principles on the life and dignity of the human person, wishes to collaborate with unions in securing the rights and dignity of workers.
The Church’s persistent defense of workers’ right to form unions is under-reported. Bishop Blaire reminds Catholics here that when unions are “focused on the important issues of living wages and appropriate benefits, raising the minimum wage, stopping wage theft, standing up for safe and healthy working conditions, and other issues that promote the common good,” they are on the Church’s side.
Whenever possible we should support businesses and enterprises that protect human life and dignity, pay just wages, and protect workers’ rights. We should support immigration policies that bring immigrant workers out of the shadows to a legal status and offer them a just and fair path to citizenship, so that their human rights are protected and the wages for all workers rise.
Here are some concrete things we can support by our choices as consumers and by contacting our legislators. Some ideas:
And remember to pray this Labor Day for economic justice throughout the world.