Catholic teaching emphasizes respect for workers

It’s an old joke among Catholic labor organizers that Catholic social teaching on the dignity of work is the Church’s best-kept secret.

But to Phillip Tabbita of the Catholic Labor Network, it’s not really a joke. It’s the truth.

Tabbita, president of the Catholic Labor Network and manager of negotiation support for the American Postal Workers Union, said that in a time of economic uncertainty and rapidly declining union membership, workers seem to be trapped in a situation where they feel they are competing with fellow workers, rather than collaborating, and where standing up for their own rights will only hurt them.

“Workers are afraid to speak up if things don’t go well,” he said. “They’re afraid they’ll lose their job, or the next promotion or the next pay raise.”

Dignity of work

But according to Catholic social teaching, which roots itself in the truth that all people are created in the image and likeness of God and have innate dignity that cannot be taken away, workers should always be treated with the respect due to every human being.

That’s the message of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops’ 2013 Labor Day statement issued by Stockton, Calif., Bishop Stephen E. Blaire, chairman of the Committee on Domestic Justice and Human Development.

While there appears to be some economic recovery, it has not increased wages or helped people find jobs that will offer them a pathway out of poverty, as many remain unemployed or underemployed.

“More than 4 million people have been jobless for over six months, and that does not include the millions more who have simply lost hope,” Bishop Blaire wrote. “For every available job, there are often five unemployed and underemployed people actively vying for it. This jobs gap pushes wages down. Half of the jobs in this country pay less than $27,000 per year. More than 46 million people live in poverty, including 16 million children. The economy is not creating an adequate number of jobs that allow workers to provide for themselves and their families. Jobs, wages and poverty are interrelated. The only way to reduce the widening gap between the affluent and the poorest people in our nation is by creating quality jobs that provide a just compensation that enables workers to live in the dignity appropriate for themselves and their families.” 

Rights of workers

At the same time, the influence of unions has waned, with only 11.3 percent of U.S. workers belonging to labor organizations in 2012, down from 11.8 percent the previous year, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. Unions are even weaker in the private sector, where 6.6 percent of workers belonged to unions in 2012, down from 6.9 percent in 2011.

The public sector is a relative union stronghold, with 35.9 percent of workers belonging to unions. But that fell from 37 percent the previous year. At the same time, the absolute number of public employee union members dropped by more than 230,000 as workers were laid off.

The Church has supported the rights of workers to organize into unions since Pope Leo XIII published Rerum Novarum (“On the Condition of Labor”) in 1891. The topic was revisited by Blessed John Paul II in Laborem Exercens (“On Human Work”) in 1981 and Centesimus Annus (“The Hundredth Year”) in 1991; Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI in Caritas in Veritate (“Charity in Truth”) in 2009; and by the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops in “Economic Justice for All” (1986) and “Forming Consciences for Faithful Citizenship” (2007).

In all of those documents, popes and bishops caution that unions must function for the good not only of their members, but for the good of all workers, and indeed, society as a whole. In Rerum Novarum, Pope Leo XIII envisioned the possibility of labor associations that would include not just workers, but also their employers.

“Work has to be built around the individual and not have the individual as just a cog in the wheel,” Tabbita said.

Fairness and respect

Catholics of all economic levels can find ways to honor the dignity of workers, Tabbita said. Employers can begin by honoring their faith not just on Sunday, but also in their businesses, by paying a fair wage and treating workers with respect.

Consumers can take the time to consider who manufactured the items they purchase, understanding that in some developing countries, workers might make what in the United States would be considered an hourly minimum wage in a week — or a month.

Companies spread out their production for good business reasons, such as building redundancy into the system to make sure they have a steady supply, but also to force the factories to bid against one another, driving their cost down. Because the equipment and raw materials are supplied by the company, the factories’ only flexible cost is labor.

Pope Francis addressed the dignity of labor and the plight of the unemployed in his address at the weekly general audience May 1, the feast of St. Joseph the Worker.

The problem of unemployment is “very often caused by a purely economic view of society, which seeks self-centered profit, outside the bounds of social justice,” he said. “I wish to extend an invitation to everyone to greater solidarity and to encourage those in public office to spare no effort to give new impetus to employment. This means caring for the dignity of the person.” 

Michelle Martin writes from Illinois.