Print Edition: 02/22/2008

Developing and maintaining a just work environment


We Catholics can be rightly proud of our church’s social teaching. Over the years it has been recognized by people both within and outside the church as a rich treasure of wisdom about building a just society and living lives of holiness in the midst of all the challenges of today’s modern world. Popes, bishops, pastors and laity have all addressed the topic in a variety of ways. Many documents have been written. Several key themes are at the heart of this Catholic social tradition.

Recently our presbyteral council focused on one of these themes, the dignity of work and the rights of workers. As we have all been reminded many times, the economy must serve people, not the other way around. Christians see work as much more than a way to make a living. It is a form of continuing participation in God’s creation. If we are serious about protecting the dignity of work, then the basic rights of all workers must be respected, namely, the right to productive work, to decent and fair wages, reorganizing and joining unions, to private property and to economic initiatives.

Several years ago we Catholic bishops published a working paper entitled A Fair and Just Workplace: Principles and Practices for Catholic Health Care. This paper resulted from a very candid and constructive dialogue among leaders of Catholic health care, the AFL-CIO and members of our Catholic bishops’ conference. Bishop William Skylstad, the bishop in neighboring Spokane, served as chairman of the working group. One of the group’s purposes was to identify new models of relationships between management and labor and between religiously sponsored health ministry and organized labor.

Even though the document was a collaborative effort of representatives of labor and our health care ministries, the discussion then and now has been critical for all areas of service and ministry within the Catholic Church, not only health care. It challenges everyone, especially those in leadership, to study and reflect upon the core understanding of a just workplace and what is required of all of us in our relationships within the work environment. The document doesn’t answer every question but it provides a clear message that can guide and assist all of us in making good and just decisions.

The members of the Presbyteral Council were quite impressed with the document and last November recommended to me that the document be used as an archdiocesan response to other initiatives of labor organizing in the archdiocese. I have approved that recommendation. The full document may be obtained at the USCCB website.

Sometimes we forget the significance of our daily labors. Catholic social teaching has been quite clear about the fact that work is the principal way we exercise our distinctive capacity for self-expression and self-realization. It is the ordinary way to fulfill our material needs. It enables us not only to support our families but also to contribute to the well-being of the larger community.

Ever since the time of Pope Leo XIII at the end of the 19th century the church has taught strongly the rights of workers in justice to secure the aforementioned values. Because this is not always easy, given the obvious discrepancy between the power of employers and that of workers, the right to form unions and other associations of their choice and to bargain collectively for wages and working conditions that guarantee human dignity in the workplace and compensation sufficient to fulfill workers’ needs is essential.

Back in the early 20th century Catholic leaders were quite active in the support of worker rights. Labor leaders at the time were predominantly Catholic, probably because Catholics were more typically poor. As we have moved up on the economic ladder, Catholic leadership has diminished in quantity and quality. Congress created the National Labor Relations Board whose purpose was to protect workers in the struggles for their rights. Some suggest that the Board has been weakened these days and as a result, it is more difficult for workers to exercise their right to organize. Hence they will need the active support of the outside community, even the church, to achieve their goal.

Yet we need to be honest. In this matter, as in many others, we all have our biases. I don’t come from a union family. My father was a self-employed pharmacist. Many priests, however, do come from union families. They would be more sensitive to the importance of those who promote workers’ interests and be eager to speak out for their cause. Our priests have come together to promulgate this working paper as a matter of archdiocesan policy. They do so with the hope that it will challenge all our Catholic people here in western Oregon to come to grips with how to respect and protect the right of employees to organize and bargain collectively, even when it is diminished or disregarded in society as a whole.

Catholic social teaching reminds us that “every person is precious, that people are more important than things, and that the measure of every institution is whether it threatens or enhances the life and dignity of the human person.” As Bishop Skylstad pointed out several years ago, the working paper about a fair and just workplace is a tool, not a solution. It is a resource for continued dialogue, not a final answer. Workers must make their own decisions free from coercion from management and free from undue influence by others.

There are always risks in dialogue, including conflict and contention. I sometimes have to remind myself of the old saying, “No pain, no gain.” The church’s desire is that “creative partnerships” be built where the rights of workers are recognized and protected and where we all work together, for the common good of all the “partners” and all whom they serve by their labors.