How Can You Honor Workers? A Perspective from Austin

Our faith teachings call us, Catholics and all people of faith, to care for our neighbor and to work for justice for all. As a long-time organizer, I have worked alongside leaders to address pressures on families and improve their lives through acting on issues. We identify these issues from relational conversations, such as those that members of our communities have with each other. Then together we address them to bring change. With support from the Catholic Campaign for Human Development, Austin Interfaith Sponsoring Committee leaders have organized to create initiatives and marshal resources that have benefited Austin-area children, families, and residents.

Austin Interfaith leaders gather at city hall to call for a living wage (2013)

One area of particular concern is ensuring that more workers have meaningful work, livable wages, and worker protections. We are taught that the dignity of the human person is tied to the dignity of work.  In Laudato Si’ no. 128, Pope Francis writes that “We were created with a vocation to work. … (and) To stop investing in people…is bad business for society.” That’s why Austin Interfaith has led the campaign in Austin to increase the city living wage floor over time to now $13.50/hour for all city workers and workers employed through contractors with the city. In addition, we’ve worked with allies to require worker protections for all construction workers on city contracted projects.

Our perspective, like that of a grandparent, is not simply on the next year or the next election cycle, but on the next generation.  In 1998, the congregations of Austin Interfaith created the Capital IDEA job training and workforce intermediary, which provides a pathway for low-income Austin residents to access new, high-paying opportunities in healthcare, technology, and manufacturing trades – jobs that provide benefits and a career path. Nearly twenty years later, over 1,400 low income adults have started new lives as nurses, sonographers, network administrators, electronic technicians, electricians, and many other careers. In 2016, Capital IDEA participants went from earning an average salary of $10,500 to an average beginning salary of almost $41,000.

An immigrant from Mexico, Elizabeth Soltero cleaned university offices overnight and cared for her young daughter during the day while her husband worked construction. They barely saw each other as a family. For three years, Capital IDEA provided tuition, fees, books, child care, and case management so Elizabeth could attend and graduate from the local community college as a network administrator. Elizabeth Soltero became Capital IDEA’s 1,000th graduate in 2012. With a specialization in information security, she now she manages a computer network for IBM, works during the day, and has bought a new house.

An even more fundamental achievement is the next generation. Through Elizabeth’s example, her daughter is well along a path to become a college graduate herself. An analysis of local school district data found that 70 percent of the children of Capital IDEA graduates go directly to college after high school – 25 percentage points higher than otherwise expected.

Capital IDEA is part of a network of model workforce programs that bring the civic, business, and public sectors together in partnership to expand opportunities for more workers to get training to qualify for jobs that can support them and their families.

As we celebrate Labor Day, we recall the contributions and sacrifices of workers that are critical to all of our lives, and call for all to work together across income levels to bring public policy and resource changes in your communities to increase opportunities of low-wage workers.

Kathleen Davis is Lead Organizer with Austin Interfaith — a broad based, nonpartisan, multi-ethnic, multi-issue organization of congregations and institutions that together develop the leadership to address issues that affect the well-being of low and moderate income families in the Austin area.


Going Deeper

Read the U.S. Catholic bishops’ annual Labor Day statement here, and learn more about Catholic teaching on the dignity of work and the rights of workers here.

 

This Labor Day, Focus on Work and Family

Catherine OrrOn April 7, 2015, my husband and I were blessed with our first child, a healthy baby boy named James. As a four month old, he brings so much joy into our lives that it is hard to imagine life before him.

Becoming a mother has been a life-changing experience. Other working moms told me going back to work would be difficult, but I never imagined how hard it truly would be. I had my first reality check of what it means to be a working mom when I returned to the Diocese of Green Bay after two months of maternity leave.

I sobbed as I pulled into the parking lot at work, which surprised me for two reasons: I sincerely love my job, and I knew that James was in good hands. He was at home, safe and sound, with his doting grandparents watching over him. Despite all of these reasons that should have put my mind at ease, I longed for days of snuggling on the couch, watching my son peacefully sleep in my arms. I longed for the sheer joy that could only come from that time together.

The transition back to work, however, gave me the opportunity to reflect on what it means to work, and more importantly, what it means to have dignity-filled work. As Archbishop Wenski mentions in his Labor Day address, “Dignity-filled work and the fruits of that labor nourish families, communities, and the common good.”

Regardless of whether or not a mother stays at home or works outside of home, these mothers are laboring to raise and provide for their families. These efforts are the foundation of society because it is within our homes–the domestic church–that each person learns what faith, love, and sacrifice mean. And, it is also within the home, that each individual learns about what is best for the entire family, the common good, and society as a whole.

Sadly, we know that there are many cultural, economic, and structural challenges facing families today. Imagine that…

  • I dropped out of school to find work, so I could provide for my baby;
  • I have no support from family or friends;
  • I do not work a job that supports a living wage;
  • I have a child with a degenerative illness;
  • My hours are cut and so is my health insurance;
  • I cannot afford my child’s health care and day care;
  • I lose my job.

Now, imagine how lonely and terrified I would be.

As a church, are we not called to care for our brothers and sisters in Christ because we are part of one human family? The ability to work a dignity-filled job is crucial for individuals and families to fully develop and participate in God’s creation. Bishop David Ricken of the Diocese of Green Bay invited every person to journey with him into the new evangelization so that each person can deepen his or her prayer life. Through prayer, each person will strengthen his or her personal relationship with Christ and become a better disciple in order to make disciples of others.

Because of our personal relationship with Christ, we must “…recommit ourselves around the world in the human family, and build systems and structures that nurture family formation and stability in our own homes and neighborhoods” (Archbishop Wenski, Labor Day Statement).

Knowing that work should allow an individual to develop and flourish as a person, it should also serve as a means for families to prosper. Therefore, as Labor Day draws near, let us pray that all families have dignified-work so that their family can prosper.

 

Catherine Orr is the Director of Living Justice in the Diocese of Green Bay and the co-chair of the Roundtable Association of Catholic Diocesan Social Action Directors.

Working Together for a Better Life

Fr. Ty Hullinger

Fr. Ty Hullinger is pastor in Baltimore, Maryland

This spring’s uprisings in communities like Baltimore and Ferguson have forced us to a greater awareness and acknowledgment of the root causes of systemic violence that affects working families each day in America.

This is the kind of violence fomented by unemployment, poverty wages, jobs without medical benefits, lack of affordable housing, privatization of public utilities and services like water, hostile union busting and union avoidance campaigns, and organized public and private-sector disinvestment in neighborhoods where most people actually live. In many instances, this is exacerbated by the stain of racism that communities of color face.

Pope Francis writes in Evangelii Gaudium,

“The poor and the poorer peoples are accused of violence, yet without equal opportunities the different forms of aggression and conflict will find a fertile terrain for growth and eventually explode. . . . This is not the case simply because inequality provokes a violent reaction from those excluded from the system, but because the socioeconomic system is unjust at its root” (no.59).

In offering this way to analyze the origins and power of this kind of systemic violence, Pope Francis reminds us that this violence is a response to the drastic inequality that results from rapid economic globalization and accompanying market forces that want to turn everything into a commodity that can be bought or sold. And this leads to a throwaway culture that threatens the existence of every living thing.

So timely are the Pope’s words to people in America!

Laudato Si’ and Evangelii Gaudium are fast becoming powerful learning tools for people engaging in community organizing efforts to end the systemic violence that is poverty. In the Curtis Bay neighborhood of Baltimore, Maryland (a tightly-knit residential community surrounded by large industrial properties), Laudato Si’ is being studied by an interfaith, multicultural, and intergenerational group of residents who formed a human rights committee called Free Your Voice with the help of United Workers (a local human rights organization formed by low-wage workers and currently funded by the Catholic Campaign for Human Development). Free Your Voice is working to stop the development of what would become the nation’s largest trash-burning incinerator on land near a community that already suffers extremely high rates of cancer and other pollution-related diseases. As a part of that campaign, a Laudato Si’ study group came together to discuss what it might be saying to us.

One part that especially spoke to us was the section called Civic And Political Love (nos. 228-232). We felt like the Pope was speaking directly to us in America when he says:

“We must regain the conviction that we need one another, that we have a shared responsibility for others and the world, and that being good and decent are worth it. We have had enough of immorality and the mockery of ethics, goodness, faith and honesty. It is time to acknowledge that light-hearted superficiality has done us no good. When the foundations of social life are corroded, what ensues are battles over conflicting interests, new forms of violence and brutality, and obstacles to the growth of a genuine culture of care for the environment.” (no. 229)

We have had enough of racism, sexism, pollution, income inequality, union busting, disinvestment, hyper-policing of African-American communities, and all of the violence which mocks and hurts working families. Though spring has turned into a long, hot and especially violent summer, we still have hope.

This Labor Day is an opportunity to remember how our families, labor unions, community organizations, and faith communities are places where civic and political love endures and makes itself known in the efforts of people to work together for a better life for all.

Fr. Ty Hullinger is pastor of St. Anthony of Padua, St. Dominic, and Most Precious Blood parishes in Baltimore, Maryland and a member of Interfaith Worker Justice of Maryland and the Priest-Labor Initiative.


 

Upholding the Dignity and Rights of Workers

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.”

Photo of author Jack MurphyLabor 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.


Read Archbishop Thomas Wenski’s Statement for Labor Day 2015 online English | Spanish