Around the Web

Check out these recent articles from around the web:

Hard questions we’re not asking Pope Francis by John Allen: “To date, the only concrete diplomatic success to which Francis can point is helping Syrian President Bashar al-Assad cling to power by opposing Western strikes. The pope had his reasons, including fear for Syria’s Christians in the aftermath of regime change. Yet assuming that Assad reasserts control, the question is whether Francis will use the Church’s resources to promote greater respect for human rights and democracy. If not, his major political accomplishment could go down as propping up a thug.”

The Changing U.S. Labor Force by Anna Sutherland: “Whatever the cause of unions’ decline, however, the future of work in America may be one of low wages and erratic schedules (both of which are hard on families) unless policy-makers find some other way to bolster the power of labor.”

The Neo-Conservative Imagination: An Interview with Patrick Deneen, Part III by Artur Rosman: “I don’t want to paint a picture of utopian bliss in Germany—of course, that’s far from the case—but we ought to look at specific practices in countries such as Germany to begin to think about how better to avoid some of our wrenching instability and how we might better conceive an economy to support family and community.”

Selfie esteem: Body image in a digital age by Meghan Murphy-Gill: “The Catholic Church has a counterpoint to this seemingly superficial approach to image: Humans are the imago Dei, created in the image of God. This alone is the source of a person’s value, not how well she applies eyeshadow or whether her selfies show a glowing girl with a great smile.”

Synod on the Family, Part I by Michael Sean Winters: “The Francis effect is only possible because people are truly hungry for the Gospel and a more humane civilization. No civilization can long remain healthy if its families are not healthy, and the remedy must be found, first and foremost, by placing the bonds of family and society – and the bond of faith, that binds us to Jesus Christ – in their true, liberating promise and pointing out that the autonomy the modern world promises is actually a grim form of self-chosen slavery.”

Everyday saints by Kira Dault: “Those who have come before us—not just the great men and women with their huge footprints, but the mothers and fathers, the children, the friends lost to us—mark the course. In their examples they leave breadcrumbs to follow, clues for how to become the kind of people we want to be.”

The Message of Mercy by Walter Kasper: “So, canon law is not against the Gospel, but the Gospel is against a legalistic understanding of canon law. Canon law should be interpreted and applied in the light of mercy because mercy opens our eyes to the concrete situation of the other.”

Monument Seeks to End Silence on Killings of the Disabled by the Nazis by Melissa Eddy: “The first to be singled out for systematic murder by the Nazis were the mentally ill and intellectually disabled. By the end of World War II, an estimated 300,000 of them had been gassed or starved, their fates hidden by phony death certificates and then largely overlooked among the many atrocities that were to be perpetrated in Nazi Germany in the years to follow. Now, they are among the last to have their suffering publicly acknowledged. On Tuesday, the victims of the direct medical killings by the Nazis were given their own memorial in the heart of Berlin.”

An unspoken truth about teens who flee the Catholic church by Jennifer Mertens: “Young people must be valued as active, respected and fully engaged members of our faith communities. Teens long to be taken seriously, to be heard, considered and included. As adults, we do not possess or control the living revelation of Christ. We journey together with our youth.”

Encounters with a drinking culture in college by Carlos Mesquita: “I asked some of my friends why they drank to excess, and while some just said they enjoyed it, many responded that they were drinking to forget something or to relieve stress. They described trying to avoid or escape some part of themselves.”

The Greatest Threat to Our Liberty Is Local Governments Run Amok by Franklin Foer: “Only a strong federal government can curb the autocratic tendencies burbling across the country. Libertarians worry about the threat of local tyrants, too, but only abstractly. In practice, they remain so fixated on the perils of Washington that they rigidly insist on devolving power down to states, cities, and towns—the very places where their nightmares are springing to life.”

The Catholic casino conundrum by Mathew Schmalz: “The message was simple: You can gamble, but take it easy. Do so temperately — within appropriate limits….But given Pope Francis’ strong stand on our obligations to those in need, it is difficult to see how to justify gambling of any kind, since the money that we might so cavalierly wager does not belong to us alone.”


Labor Day 2014: Rejecting an Economy of Exclusion

The USCCB’s 2014 Labor Day statement follows in Pope Francis’ footsteps. The statement highlights those who have been left behind as the economy has recovered from the Great Recession:

Digging a little deeper, however, reveals enduring hardship for millions of workers and their families. The poverty rate remains high, as 46 million Americans struggle to make ends meet. The economy continues to fail in producing enough decent jobs for everyone who is able to work, despite the increasing numbers of retiring baby boomers. There are twice as many unemployed job seekers as there are available jobs, and that does not include the seven million part-time workers who want to work full-time. Millions more, especially the long-term unemployed, are discouraged and dejected.

The USCCB also points out the economic difficulties specifically faced by many millennials:

More concerning is that our young adults have borne the brunt of this crisis of unemployment and underemployment. The unemployment rate for young adults in America, at over 13 percent, is more than double the national average (6.2 percent). For those fortunate enough to have jobs, many pay poorly. Greater numbers of debt-strapped college graduates move back in with their parents, while high school graduates and others may have less debt but very few decent job opportunities. Pope Francis has reserved some of his strongest language for speaking about young adult unemployment, calling it “evil,” an “atrocity,” and emblematic of the “throwaway culture.”

The statement contrasts an economy of exclusion with the type of economy that is compatible with human dignity and the culture of encounter:

Supporting policies and institutions that create decent jobs, pay just wages, and support family formation and stability will also honor the dignity of workers. Raising the minimum wage, more and better workforce training programs, and smarter regulations that minimize negative unintended consequences would be good places to start.

In doing this we follow the lead of Pope Francis in rejecting an economy of exclusion and embracing an authentic culture of encounter. Our younger generations are counting on us to leave them a world better than the one we inherited.

This strong statement from the USCCB was not the only one worth reading for Labor Day; Bishop Howard Hubbard wrote an excellent article in NCR, as well. He explains the value and dignity of work, along with its connection to the rights of workers:

As we approach our national observance of Labor Day, it is good to remember the importance of work in our lives. Faith tells us that work is more than a way to make a living; it is a form of contemporary participation in God’s plan of salvation and of being co-creators with God in bringing the world to its fulfillment. It is a means of growing, sharing and enhancing one’s own life and that of one’s family and the wider community.

Because work is so essential for the well-being of the individual, the family and society, the dignity of work must be protected and the basic rights of workers are to be respected: the right to productive work, to a decent and fair wage, to safe working conditions, to organize and join unions, to private property, and to economic initiative.

After outlining some of the economic justice issues present today, he explained the continued need for unions, always a good reminder on Labor Day:

It is imperative, therefore, that we promote workers’ organizations that defend their rights and ward off those forces of capitalism that can be exploitive and dehumanizing.

Unfortunately, far too often, the debate over economic policy tends to neglect the human, social and moral dimensions of economic life, and that is why the formulation and implementation of solutions to our economic woes cannot be left solely to the technicians, special interest groups and market forces. For what is at stake is not really economic theories or political programs, but human life.

Behind every statistic and chart that seeks to define the problem lie individual tragedies and families trying to cope with unemployment and poverty. Our present crisis is a moral as well as an economic one and must be addressed as such. May Labor Day 2014 prompt us to do so.

It is good to see such clear-sighted analysis of the economy and powerful defenses of the dignity of work and economic justice from Catholic leaders.


Meghan Clark: Power to the public workers

Millennial writer Meghan Clark has a new article at US Catholic. She writes:

Our teachers, librarians, police, firefighters, sanitation workers, and all civil servants actively contribute to the common good. They and their jobs are not lesser because their wages are funded by your taxes. They have equal dignity with private employees. In this current wave of hostility toward public workers, Catholic social teaching reminds us that the dignity of all workers—public and private—grounds their basic right to association, including the right to unionize and bargain collectively.

The full article can be read here.

Our teachers, librarians, police, firefighters, sanitation workers, and all civil servants actively contribute to the common good. They and their jobs are not lesser because their wages are funded by your taxes. They have equal dignity with private employees. In this current wave of hostility toward public workers, Catholic social teaching reminds us that the dignity of all workers—public and private—grounds their basic right to association, including the right to unionize and bargain collectively. – See more at: http://www.uscatholic.org/articles/201407/power-public-workers-29109#sthash.GRiNzP9U.dpuf
Our teachers, librarians, police, firefighters, sanitation workers, and all civil servants actively contribute to the common good. They and their jobs are not lesser because their wages are funded by your taxes. They have equal dignity with private employees. In this current wave of hostility toward public workers, Catholic social teaching reminds us that the dignity of all workers—public and private—grounds their basic right to association, including the right to unionize and bargain collectively. – See more at: http://www.uscatholic.org/articles/201407/power-public-workers-29109#sthash.GRiNzP9U.dpuf
Our teachers, librarians, police, firefighters, sanitation workers, and all civil servants actively contribute to the common good. They and their jobs are not lesser because their wages are funded by your taxes. They have equal dignity with private employees. In this current wave of hostility toward public workers, Catholic social teaching reminds us that the dignity of all workers—public and private—grounds their basic right to association, including the right to unionize and bargain collectively. – See more at: http://www.uscatholic.org/articles/201407/power-public-workers-29109#sthash.GRiNzP9U.dpuf

Six Great Quotes from the USCCB’s Labor Day Statement

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:

Buy Fair Trade.
Write to legislators about immigration reform.
Participate in microfinance.
Shop at places that pay their employees well.

And remember to pray this Labor Day for economic justice throughout the world.


How Can Teachers Unions Be Engines of Progress?

How can teachers unions be engines of change and progress?  This question is vital as unions look to define their role in the 21st century.

Today, unions’ roles have changed. Many unions are no longer fighting battles for a 40-hour work week, healthcare, or vacation time. They are no longer struggling against child labor and dangerous working conditions.  Unions are morphing into something else entirely. The issues are much more complex. Unions are now fighting for relevancy in a world that takes the last one hundred years of labor struggles and achievements for granted.

Let’s look at the recent events in Chicago. The teachers union there was striving not for more money, but for the idea that teachers’ careers should not be jeopardized by how their students perform on a standardized test. This is just one example of what unions, specifically teachers unions, have morphed into—a collective group of employees striving to make their profession more professional.

It is easy to demonize. All one has to do is to check the latest news to find stories about a teacher-student sex scandal or search out a YouTube video of a teacher berating a student, shot on a cellphone by another student.

But we need to stop for a minute and think. Are these really our teachers? Do they represent the profession? Or are they the outliers? I am sure you can think of a person with whom you work who is not up to par—the one who “mails it in” and does the bare minimum to keep up. This is not the product of the teaching profession or teachers unions, but human nature.  In all professions, one can find someone trying to get by with minimal effort. What’s unique about teaching is that it is so highly scrutinized, because it involves our future, our children, and every scandal is deemed newsworthy because of the setting.

But let’s look at what is not newsworthy, what goes unnoticed. For every horror story you hear about a teacher, there are countless positive ones that you will never hear. There are teachers who make students believe they can achieve something they never thought possible. There are teachers who put in seventy or eighty hour work weeks. There are teachers who perform on a stage every day, multiple times, evolving and adapting to every unique set of students in order to get their students to believe that what they are studying is, in fact, important in life. These are faces lost in the crowd. These are the stories that are not told.

But what does this have to do with unions and striking? When we think of teachers as human persons rather than the embodiment of popular stereotypes, we have a very different view of them. Let’s try an experiment. Ask your friend or neighbor how they feel about teacher unions. Write their response down. It will most likely be negative. Then let some time pass. After that, ask the same person how they feel about their child’s teachers. Ask them if they support their schools and teachers. Write down their response. The responses to these two prompts will likely be radically different. Why is there such a disconnect between the way the individual teachers are seen and the collective group of teachers are perceived? Why do we love Mr. and Ms. So And So but then demonize these same teachers when we think about them as being a part of a group?  For every bad teacher that unions “protect,” (which in many cases involves ensuring due process with opportunities for professional development and growth) there are many more good teachers the unions protect.

A teachers union’s goal is to be the force that changes education. We teachers know the research. We know what works and what doesn’t work. We know that a man in a suit who has never taught or been in a high school classroom since high school should not be judge, jury, and executioner when it comes to pedagogical decisions. Do not blame teachers for the bureaucracy that is forced upon their careers through the federal department of education, the state, and the county, in addition to the district and local board of education. It is not the individual’s fault when it is the system that is broken.

Let’s look at how this system works for teachers in an average community and school, such as my own. The idea is to hire someone who seems like they would be a good fit. Then, give them two years with observations, to make sure that they are disciplined and effective. The problem lies in the fact that after these two years, the principal has only two options: hire them with tenure or blackball them from the district (which in my case includes multiple high schools, more middle schools, and even more elementary schools) for life. That is the difficult choice these principals face.

The absurdity of the ban for life is clear when we consider the diversity that exists in many school districts.  The schools in my own district vary from those where over half the students receive a free or reduced lunch to those where that number is under 10%. Some schools have many students for whom English is a second language, while others have only a handful.  Can we say that it is impossible for a teacher to be effective in one of the situations, but not the other?  Of course not.

Beyond this, the question arises: how do you judge teachers in those two very different situations? Is he or she more “successful” at a site where test scores are high and poverty levels are low?  Should he or she be fired because test scores are low, while poverty is high? We know that poverty and language skills influence educational outcomes.  So much of what influences test scores occurs outside of the classroom’s walls.

At one site, the teacher need not worry.  They will inevitably be fine.  They could show up, do a decent job and the test scores would take care of themselves. Parents will be checking their kids’ homework every night and maybe paying thousands of dollars for tutors or test prep.  On the other end of town however, this same teacher could come in every day and work tirelessly battling and helping to resolve problems for students, including those outside of the classroom, while receiving little help from parents, who are working a second job, trying to make ends meet and escape poverty. In the former, a mediocre performance might translate into high scores, while in the second scenario, an outstanding teacher might fail to lift test scores.  These test scores cannot possibly be an accurate form of evaluation.  The evidence shows that they are simply not an effective measure of teacher performance.

This is the battle teachers unions are fighting. For teachers, the concerns are not about losing a hand to dangerous work equipment in a factory. They are about a system in which it has somehow become acceptable to use appallingly unequal criteria to judge educators. Such a system is profoundly unfair.

Yet some unions feel compelled to preserve the status quo.  On one hand, they realize tenure will most often be granted.  On the other, they see that collective bargaining is under fire by antagonists on the right, and they fear a return to the days when teachers were not given preparation time, lunch was an unpaid luxury, sick days were nonexistent, and the first way districts would save money was by cutting teacher pay or firing quality, experienced teachers and replacing them with low-paid novices.  However, teachers unions should have the courage to get beyond this legitimate concern and work to generate and bargain for ideas on how to create a system that provides security for established quality teachers, assists those hoping to get better, allows teachers to move to other jobs within the district that are a better fit, and makes it easier for principals to let a teacher go without ruining his or her career.

Unions must be a force for change. The status quo is not good enough.  Smart, progressive teachers recognize this and are ready for change.  What is essential is that teachers unions lead the way on this change, not those who seek simple solutions to complex problems.  Most legislators have spent a microscopic amount of time in a classroom (outside of quality photo-ops) since they graduated, yet they make decisions that teachers have to implement daily. The board of education, legally, cannot be made up of teachers.  Without teachers unions, the valuable lessons learned inside the classroom, where theory meets reality, will be lost.

Unions must be the ones at the bargaining table asking the difficult questions.  Statistics show that homework in elementary schools does not work.  Similarly, statistics prove that evaluating teachers based on test scores does not work, and that you do not need to evaluate teachers based on test scores to get high test scores.   Just look at Finland, a country whose test scores have soared even though their teachers are never evaluated based on those scores.  We know that the school day often starts too early, negatively impacting students’ ability to think productively. Most studies suggest classes should start later, perhaps at 9:00 am.  We know that the food we serve our students is not a healthy and well-rounded lunch (I’m sorry but nachos and chocolate milk is not lunch).

We know that what teachers want more than anything else (even money) is time.  Time to collaborate.  Time to talk with other professionals.  Time to plan and share best practices and discuss what worked and what didn’t work and why.  Unions should be creative in developing new ways to ensure this collaboration.  We should be the idea-generators when it comes to all of these issues including professional compensation, evaluation, and development; the structure of the school day; and all of the little details that can improve not just the education, but the lives of our students.

Why then are unions being attacked on all sides? Part of it is that we have not been dynamic enough.  We need to do more and become more innovative for the sake of our students and fellow teachers.  But an even bigger part of it is that people are buying into a false narrative of unions as nothing but a special interest group that “protect bad teachers” and seeks its own interests, while turning its back on the children they teach.

Yet teachers are there to educate, inspire, and change the lives of our students through public education, and countless teachers live up to these expectations. Our goal is, and always will be, to fight for our students.  Teachers unions cannot and should not ignore the interests of teachers, but we must always fight for what’s best for our students. Who else would you want fighting for your students?

Andrew Christian is a English teacher and department co-chair at Abraham Lincoln High School in San Jose Unified School District CA. He is a union representative of the San Jose Teachers Association, a member of the California Teachers Association and National Education Association.