Bishop highlights need for just wages in Labor Day message

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The provision of just wages for all workers is a critical component of a moral economy, said the head of the U.S. bishops’ Domestic Justice and Human Development committee in his Labor Day message.

“Today, there are many families who, even if they have technically escaped poverty, nevertheless face significant difficulties in meeting basic needs,” said Bishop Frank J. Dewane of Venice. “Wages for lower income workers are, by various accounts, insufficient to support a family and provide a secure future.”

In his 2018 Labor Day statement, the bishop emphasized that all Christians share the responsibility of building a human-centered economy.

“The economy must serve people, not the other way around,” he said. “Work is more than a way to make a living; it is a form of participating in God's creation. If the dignity of work is to be protected, then the basic rights of workers must be respected, including the right to productive work, to decent and fair wages, to organizing and joining unions, to private property, and to economic initiative.”

In recent years, Dewane noted, the economy has seen significant progress, with declines in poverty and unemployment, and record highs in production, stocks and profits.

However, he said, these statistics do not show the full story of the modern economy, specifically the daily struggles of many unemployed, underemployed, and low-wage workers.

“It is encouraging that poverty has gone down, but still almost one in three persons have a family income below 200 percent of the federal poverty line,” Dewane said.

He pointed to recent studies showing that an average two-bedroom apartment is out of reach for minimum wage earners in all 50 states, and that 40 percent of adults would be unable to cover a $400 emergency expense without borrowing or selling something.

Also concerning, the bishop said, are “the continuing disparities in median incomes between different racial and ethnic groups and between women and men.”

Faced with these challenges, Christians have an obligation to work for a more just society and to “stand in solidarity with our poor and vulnerable brothers and sisters,” Dewane said.

He called both business owners and workers to operate with integrity, recalling the words of Pope Francis in Gaudete et Exultate: “Do you work for a living? Be holy by laboring with integrity and skill in the service of your brothers and sisters…Are you in a position of authority? Be holy by working for the common good and renouncing personal gain.”

Business owners must pursue human flourishing rather than seeking profit alone, Dewane said. “[P]art of this obligation is to pay a just wage, which provides a dignified livelihood for workers and their families to meet their basic needs.”

The Church has traditionally taught that a worker’s willingness to work for a certain wage is not sufficient to make that wage just, the bishop noted. Rather, justice in wages must be evaluated “in the context of the well-being and flourishing of the individual, the family and society.”

“Every worker has a right to a just wage according to the criterion of justice, which St. John XXIII described as wages that, ‘give the worker and his family a standard of living in keeping with the dignity of the human person’.”

Implementing just wages in practice will require a change of heart, Dewane said. He suggested that politicians should address structural causes of low wages and unjust disparities, and society should give “due consideration for what justly ensures security for employees to establish and maintain all significant aspects of family life, and care for family members into the future.”

He also highlighted the rights of unions to advocate for just wages, health benefits, adequate rest, and protection against wage theft.

“[W]e live in the hope that our society can become ever more just when there is conversion of heart and mind so that people recognize the inherent dignity of all and work together for the common good.”

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