Editorial — The dignity of work

On a recent evening a half-dozen diners engaged their waiter in good-natured conversation that evolved, over the courses of the meal, to a discussion of how this bright, well-spoken and well-educated man had decided to work by serving food to others.

Turns out it was not a choice, but a requirement.

It turns out that the young man from Louisville had come face-to-face with a decision so many young people in this economy have had thrust upon them.

He’d been an athlete; won an athletic scholarship to Duke University. Upon graduation, he was hired by a local insurance firm, he said, and steadily rose in the corporate environment.

Then the company decided to purge itself of 700 people — all to better the bottom line, no doubt — and the Duke University graduate with a degree in business administration found himself on the outside looking in on the job market.

But it didn’t take long to find another job, this one with a bank, and again he rose through the ranks until — caught in the midst of the financial crisis — the young bank closed its doors.

The unemployment lasted months; then the months became years and finally the man with the business degree, with a wife and two children, became a waiter.

Not at one restaurant, but at two.

“I work the one place during the lunch hours; then work the dinner-time shift here at night,” he explained. “I don’t see much of my family, but it’s a way to pay the bills.”

And the truth is he and his family are among the lucky ones. He has a job — two of them, in fact. Thousands of others don’t, and thousands of others, similar to
this young man, are working at positions far below their education level and far below their abilities.

Many others are working at jobs that pay only minimum wage while millionaires in Congress fight raising that wage. The lawmakers even have the audacity to say that giving those underpaid workers more money would somehow be bad for them.

Think about that this Labor Day. And think about the 2014 Labor Day statement released last week by the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops. That statement denounced the fact that young adults have “borne the brunt” of unemployment and underemployment in this country and around the world, according to a story in the Catholic News Service (CNS).

Miami Archbishop Thomas G. Wenski, chairman of the bishops’ Committee on Domestic Justice and Human Development and speaking for the bishops, noted that Pope Francis has been “teaching against an economy of exclusion.”

Some Americans, he told CNS, have found stability and security” in a slowly improving economy.

“For those men and women and their children, this is good news,” he said. But just beneath that veneer of positive statements there is an economy that is still producing “enduring hardship for millions of workers and their families.” And the poverty rate remains high, the bishop noted, “with 46 million Americans struggling to make ends meet.”

Once upon a time this was a nation of united workers who made things. The unions fought tooth and nail — literally — with companies to end child labor, create paid vacations and gain other benefits such as health insurance. But over the years, through their own corruption and mismanagement along with an organized campaign against the unions by big business, the union influence waned.

Companies were allowed to send their factories overseas where they could pay workers a pittance and boost their profits to record levels. And they paid no penalty for this. While demanding that government get off their backs, businesses have continued to move manufacturing abroad, continued to lay off workers by the thousands, and continued to award mind-boggling bonuses to their leaders who come up with these brilliant business ideas.

Meanwhile Bishop Wenski, Pope Francis and other church leaders continue to beg and plead with business — and with workers, too — to lead the lives that Jesus asked of us. In the Labor Day statement, Bishop Wenski noted that the pope has called young people a source of hope for humanity.

“We need to do more to nurture this hopefulness and provide our young adults with skills, support and opportunities to flourish,” he said. He also noted that policies and institutions “that create decent jobs, pay just wages and support family formation and stability” honor the dignity of work and 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,” the bishop said.

And make no mistake about it, Pope Francis said earlier this summer — “Work gives dignity.” A generation without work “is a future defeat for … humanity,” the pope said.

“It is necessary to put the dignity of the human person at the center of every plan and every action,” the pope said at a Mass in July. “Other interests, even legitimate ones, are secondary.”

Glenn Rutherford
Record Editor

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