Discussing the state of labor and workers in America is a challenge. There is so much to say and little space in which to say it. Such is the case with solutions—the challenges that workers, their families and our economy face are significant, and often discouraging and overwhelming. They lead us to ask the question: Can one person make a difference?
I say absolutely. It begins at the core of our teaching—human beings are made in the image and likeness of God. We are called to protect and affirm that dignity always.
In Evangelii Gaudium, Pope Francis reflects on this in the context of “an economy of exclusion”:
Human beings are themselves considered consumer goods to be used and then discarded. We have created a “throw away” culture which is now spreading (no. 53).
We live in a society preoccupied with things, consumed with consuming, cajoled and prodded into buying this new product, getting that service done. But deeply embedded in those everyday consumer decisions are profound human consequences.
How often do we pause to consider the dignity of the human on the other side of those choices? Do we ever really stop and ponder the worker who made this thing we desire so strongly? It is easy to protect and affirm the human dignity of the people we can see, hear, and interact with; less so when it is a worker thousands of miles away, or hidden in a rural warehouse or laboring to clean as we rest.
We get discount clothes, but do we give a thought to whether workers in the factories and old textile towns who manufacture (or used to manufacture) them work in safe conditions and are paid just wages?
We get affordable, fresh produce, but do we give a thought to the migrant workers who toil in the fields, the exhausted Earth, or the small family farms that used to feed our country but can no longer compete?
Caregivers and domestic workers, the majority of whom are female and immigrant, work for poverty-level wages to care for the most vulnerable among us–our young and elderly. Do we give a thought to their circumstances, or whether and how the lack of quality care for the old and the young opens the door to the same attitudes that see no grave moral wrong in abortion and assisted suicide?
Pope Francis’ words should stir and challenge us. An economy of inclusion that alleviates poverty and creates decent work demands that we appreciate the human consequences of our decisions.
It is not easy to ask these questions, but our faith requires it. Now, everybody’s circumstances are different, and not all of us can act to the same degree. However, it is important to ask these questions, and make life- and dignity-affirming choices whenever we can. In the words of St. John Paul II:
It is therefore necessary to create life-styles in which the quest for truth, beauty, goodness and communion with others for the sake of common growth are the factors which determine consumer choices, savings and investments (Centesimus Annus, no. 36).
May God grant us all wisdom, charitable hearts and vision to see the needs of our sisters and brothers in the decisions we make each day.
Check out organizations supported by the Catholic Campaign for Human Development working on labor issues.
Check out the bishops’ recent Labor Day Statement.