A retired friend of mind is well known for saying “work was never fun…if it had been fun they wouldn’t have called it work.”
While that could be the mantra of AARP, those of us in the work world still know that, on days when we are truly engaged in our jobs, time flies by. That supports another saying I learned from the CEO of a large NY publishing house where I once worked: “Worthwhile work for which we feel recognized and valued ought to be fun.”
Labor Day was originally conceived to honor the contributions made by organized labor. Today, it takes on the wider tradition of recognizing the importance of all workers to the success and well-being of our country.
The purpose of any business is to add value. You take raw materials, either a thing or a service, and transform them in ways that will make them valuable. If enough customers think the product or service is valuable, they buy it. If enough customers buy it, that makes the company more valuable to stakeholders. Some companies, when they are trying to improve value to one set of stakeholders–financial investors, take the shortsighted view that they can squeeze expense out of another group of stakeholders–the workers.
If you are like me, you can sometimes become obsessed with finding the lowest possible price for a hamburger or a toothbrush. You may not think twice that the low price can come at a cost to the worker who created the product, that some of the “value” you’ve gotten means the worker may not earn a wage to live with dignity.
There are a growing number of companies, as witnessed by the Conscious Capitalism or the Fair Food movements, realizing that concern for the well-being of employees and the greater community is not mutually exclusive to shareholder value. You can create a win/win/win situation for all. These employers, Catholic or not, understand and practice the spirit captured by the U.S. Bishops:
“Employers contribute to the common good through the services or products they provide and by creating jobs that uphold the dignity and rights of workers—to productive work, to decent and just wages, to adequate benefits and security in their old age, to the choice of whether to organize and join unions, to the opportunity for legal status for immigrant workers, to private property, and to economic initiative.” (52) Forming Consciences for Faithful Citizenship
Last year, The Society of St. Vincent de Paul (SVdP) issued a position paper calling for all our employees to be paid a self-sufficient wage, which was defined as the level of pay needed to live without public or private assistance. SVdP president Sheila Gilbert urged the Society “to ensure that those employed by the Society in the United States be afforded the greatest possible respect and a wage that reflects our values of creating self-sufficiency for whomever we serve.”
As Catholics, our social teaching instructs us to care for the poor. It seems that we could put ourselves in a difficult moral dilemma when we say we care for the poor, yet we pay the minimum legal wage to a single mother trying to keep her family together. If our employees are concerned about where they will get their next meal or how to keep their lights on, how can they concentrate on their job? More importantly, in such situations, how can we say that we as employers are recognizing the dignity of work?
I know that this can be a difficult situation. I have spoken with many good managers who operate thrift stores and other enterprises that generate funds to help those in need. Many of these good people struggle to strike a balance between the mission–of generating income to help the poor–and producing enough profit to pay beyond the minimum wage. Nevertheless, everyone I discuss this with has a commitment to find ways to better live Gospel values and better honor those commemorated on this Labor Day.
Moving an enterprise from paying minimum wage to recognizing the dignity of work by paying a self-sufficient wage is difficult. It takes a strong sense of purpose, creativity, dedication, and faith. But, we should always strive to advocate for a higher minimum wage and make sure our priorities are in order.
Jack Murphy is a business professional in Atlanta, GA. He also serves on the board of The Society of St. Vincent de Paul, working on their diversity, systemic change, and advocacy efforts.