Millions of workers are being denied the honor and respect they deserve because of a lack of jobs, underemployment, low wages and exploitation, according to the chairman of the U.S. bishops’ Committee on Domestic Justice and Human Development. “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,’” said Bishop Stephen E. Blaire of Stockton, Calif., in the U.S. bishops’ annual Labor Day statement.
“Unfortunately, millions of workers today are denied this honor and respect as a result of unemployment, underemployment, unjust wages, wage theft, abuse and exploitation,” Bishop Blaire said.
“The economy is not creating an adequate number of jobs that allow workers to provide for themselves and their families,” Bishop Blaire said. “More than four million people have been jobless for over six months, and that does not include the millions more who have simply lost hope. 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.”
In his message on behalf of the bishops’ conference, Bishop Blaire quoted from the Second Vatican Council’s “Pastoral Constitution on the Church in the Modern World”: “While an immense number of people still lack the absolute necessities of life, some, even in less advanced areas, live in luxury or squander wealth.”
“How can it be said that persons honor one another when such ‘extravagance and wretchedness exist side by side’?” he asked. Those words, Bishop Blaire noted, “seem to be just as true today.”
Bishop Blaire also quoted from Pope Benedict XVI’s encyclical “Charity in Truth” (2009), which also dealt in part with the specter of inequality. “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,” Pope Benedict said, “and that we continue to prioritize the goal of access to steady employment for everyone.”
The bishop noted how workers’ issues are tied to other issues. “High unemployment and underemployment are connected to the rise in income inequality,” he said. Such inequality erodes social cohesion and puts democracy at risk. “The pain of the poor and those becoming poor in the rising economic inequality of our society is mounting,” he added.
“Whenever possible we should support businesses and enterprises that protect human life and dignity, pay just wages and protect workers’ rights,” Bishop Blaire wrote. “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.”
Bishop Blaire also commented on the importance of unions in the bishops’ statement, noting that the “rise in income inequality has mirrored a decline in union membership.” He said, “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.”