Put Out into the Deep

Solidarity in the Workplace

My dear brothers and sisters in the Lord,

Each year, prior to Labor Day, the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops’ Committee on Domestic Justice and Human Development, of which Archbishop Thomas Wenski of Miami is the Chair and I am a member, issues a statement that comments on the present situation of labor in our Nation. Catholic social teaching is rich in a tradition of understanding the proper place of work in the human family.

Our Holy Father, Pope Francis, has added to this long tradition by stating that work “Is fundamental to the dignity of a person…. [it] ‘anoints’ us with dignity, fills us with dignity, makes us similar to God … gives one the ability to maintain oneself, one’s family, (and) to contribute to the growth of one’s own nation.”

Although the worst of the recession seems to be behind us here in the U.S., there are many countries where the work situation seems only to get worse. In our own society, unemployment is too high, especially among African-American males, Hispanics and other minority groups. Catholic social teaching tells us that work is the key to the social question, the social question being, “How can the common good can be achieved in any society?”

Without every member of a society contributing to the common good by their own labor, societies find themselves in terrible circumstances where wage inequality and opportunity inequality discourage human growth and development.

Labor Day, as this statement reminds us, “gives us the chance to see how work in America matches up to the lofty ideals of our Catholic tradition.”

It is never easy to achieve perfect distribution of wealth in any society, and any society that has claimed to achieve this has failed miserably in the long run. It is very important that our young people today find an opportunity for employment after completing training or even advanced studies. It is so discouraging to view young people who do not have an opportunity for work or even to marry because of adverse economic circumstances.

This year’s Labor Day statement reminds us that the Catechism of the Catholic Church teaches us that “Socio-economic problems can be resolved only with the help of all the forms of solidarity: solidarity of the poor among themselves, between rich and poor, of workers among themselves, between employers and employees in a business, solidarity among nations and peoples.”

The statement covers all of the bases when it comes to human cooperation that can lift all members of society to have their basic needs met with the opportunity for rest and relaxation.

Labor Day came a bit early this year on Sept. 1 and marked an unofficial end of the summer and the period of rest and relaxation that is well deserved. However, many, in their struggle for justice, cannot avail themselves a time for rest and relaxation.

Several weeks ago, Cardinal Dolan and I met with a group of workers, mostly immigrants, who are employed by the sub-contractors at our area airports. These people work for a minimum wage without any benefits, nor any holidays or vacation time. It is truly a subsistence living for those who clean our airports, and even the airplanes. Another fact is that the airlines are more than ready to sub-contract them to their workers themselves. At that same time, the airlines keep a tight reign on the sub-contractors and do not allow them to raise the minimum wage. Again, at the same time, our airlines are now making substantial profits.

To the credit of the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey, which oversees our area airports, it has pushed the employers, and, in effect, the airlines to raise the minimum wage by $1 for these workers, with subsequent wage raises for the future. When Cardinal Dolan and I met with these workers, it was clear that they are only looking for a living wage so that by the fruit of their labor they can live decently.

Each Labor Day, our great country puts out into the deep waters of the social question that is, “How can everyone in our society share in the benefits of our prosperity?” Solidarity is the answer, as our Catholic Catechism teaches us.

When we have an opportunity to weigh in on behalf of those who struggle, even though they are unemployed, our Catholic consciences urge us to side with those who are most in need.