Put Out into the Deep

Labor Day Highlights Dignity of Workers

My dear brothers and sisters in the Lord,

Labor Day will soon be upon us. Each year on Labor Day, the Bishops of the United States, through the Committee on Domestic Policy, issue a statement in commemoration of Labor Day, which usually focuses on the dignity of workers and labor. This year’s statement by the Chair of the committee, Bishop Stephen Blaire of Stockton, Calif., calls upon businesses, churches, unions and private citizens to reduce inequality in the labor force. The Church’s teaching on labor has been enunciated for over 100 years beginning with Pope Leo XIII in his encyclical on Rerum Novarum, or Rights and Duties of Capital and Labor. Ever since, each Roman Pontiff has clarified the dignity of human work and how work contributes to the well-being of society, just as John Paul II’s encyclical on work, Laborem Exercens, or On Human Work, was a modern-day thesis on the dignity of work and its place in society, but most importantly in the sanctification of the human person. Work makes us whole, and how important that is to all persons. Our present Holy Father, Pope Francis, said, “Work is fundamental to the dignity of the person. It gives us the ability to maintain one’s family, contribute to the growth of one’s nation.”

Unfortunately, today in our country, over four million people have been jobless for over six months, and that does not include the millions who have just simply given up their pursuit of a job. Another problem, underemployment, is also something that needs to be addressed in our society. Over half of the jobs in our country pay less than $27,000, and over 46 million people live in poverty, of whom 16 million are children. These are the statistics and analysis given to us by the Committee on Domestic Policy. I once chaired the Domestic Policy Committee for the Bishop’s Conference. I was responsible for crafting the Labor Day statement. Each year, the prospects of the labor conditions in our country changes, yet certain things have remained stable, namely, the issues outlined by the committee: unemployment/underemployment with special emphasis on the unionization of workers and their benefits, and finally the unfortunate situation of undocumented immigrant workers in our society.

Because the Church understands the dignity of human work and the dignity of the human person, the Church strives to bring together all elements of society so that management and labor, and capital and the employed, work together to better the conditions of labor in the society in which we live. There is no magic formula for workplace and wage equality. The issues of fair wage, especially for women who are employed, are still unresolved in many segments of our labor market. The difficulties surrounding inequality must not lead us to abandon the quest for a more equitable labor market, which would result in a more equitable society.

Bishop Blaire ended his statement from the Bishop’s Committee by saying, “The pain of the poor and those becoming poor in the rising economic inequality of our society is mounting. Therefore, on Labor Day 2013, let us renew our commitment to promote the dignity of the human person through work that is honorable, pays just wages, and recognizes the God-given dignity of the working person.”

The Bishop’s Committee has put out into the deep of some murky waters, in understanding the U.S. labor market. I can say from my sociology background that this unfortunately, is one of the most misunderstood components of our society. Hopefully, the light of faith can bring some clarity to the justice needed to enable workers to achieve equitable pay for a just day’s work.

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