My neighbor “Joe” is a friendly middle-age man who lives with his wife, daughter and mother-in-law in their rented half-house in Rochester’s South Wedge. Recently, he told me that works at Wal-Mart. He seemed happy to get a raise recently, up to $8 an hour (which comes to $16,640 a year). In the winter Joe used to put snow on his windshield to cover the overdue New York state vehicle-inspection sticker. He said he couldn’t afford to make the repairs to his 1991 Dodge Dynasty. While he is “getting by” with not fixing his car, I wondered how safe it is for him or for the rest of us.
I did not ask Joe if he has health insurance. The odds are that he does not have health insurance — 53 percent of the 1.2 million Wal-Mart associates do not have health insurance. If associates do have insurance, it doesn’t start until they’ve been employed by Wal-Mart for six months, and they have to pay the first $1,000 in medical bills each year before the coverage begins. If Joe can’t get his car fixed, he probably can’t afford to go to the doctor either.
Our Catholic social tradition talks about the dignity of labor and the rights and responsibilities of workers. I wonder how these rights are holding up in today’s economy.
“St. Thomas” school is building a new addition. The budget is tight so they take the low bid from a general contractor. The general contractor hires subcontractors to do the work. Some of these independent contractors do not play by the rules. They pay their workers “under the table,” which means they do not pay any taxes, Social Security or workers’ compensation. The independent workers may not receive any health benefits and may not have adequate training to do the job right or ensure their own safety on the job. Oftentimes, our church administrators are not aware of these illegal and irresponsible shenanigans. In the church and in society, we will have to find ways to ensure the contractors we hire and their subcontractors are socially responsible.
Our Catholic social tradition talks about the dignity of labor and the rights and responsibilities of workers. I wonder how these rights are holding up in today’s economy? These rights include the following:
* Does the institution provide a safe and healthful working environment?
* Do the lowest-paid workers receive wages sufficient to sustain themselves and their families?
* Is health-care insurance provided, or are wages sufficient for a worker to both sustain a family and purchase health-care insurance?
* Are work hours flexible so as to permit adequate rest, leisure time, educational opportunities and quality family time?
* Are training and educational opportunities that will lead to advancement and promotions available to workers?
* What is the purpose of part-time or contract positions — to advance the institution and meet the needs of workers or to avoid paying benefits?
* Do workers have easy access to written procedures that explain how to resolve disputes with supervisors or file a grievance to protect their rights or the rights of others?
* Do workers have avenues for meaningful input into decisions affecting the workplace? (National Conference of Catholic Bishops, A Fair and Just Workplace: Principles and Practices for Catholic Health Care, 1999).
Pope John Paul II reminded us in his 1991 encyclical, Centesimus Annus, that only if the church does the works of justice internally will the call for justice in the world be authentic and credible (par. 57). The Catholic Church — in its parishes, schools, human-service agencies, nursing homes and hospitals — will have to strive to implement the principles suggested above. If we do not, we are hypocritical and not a sign of the Gospel to the rest of the world.
There are hopeful signs in our diocese that we are trying to address issues of worker justice. For instance, I believe that we are becoming more aware that farm workers in our state are entitled to the same rights as other workers, such as a day of rest, the right to collective bargaining and overtime pay. Eventually, the power of the people will convince Sen. Joseph Bruno to bring the Fair Labor Practices bill to the floor of the state Senate. The work of Rural and Migrant Ministry, the efforts of the Public Policy Committee of the Diocese of Rochester and the leadership of Bishop Matthew H. Clark can take some credit for this growing awareness.
I also see the labor-religion coalitions in Elmira, Ithaca and Rochester, as well as in 60 other cities around the country, as a hopeful sign. In these coalitions, men and women from diverse religious backgrounds and the labor community are addressing issues of economic justice and worker rights. These efforts need to be strengthened so that our Catholic social tradition remains a living tradition engaging the realities of worker rights and dignity in today’s evolving economy.
Mich is director of social policy and research for diocesan Catholic Charities and co-chair of the Rochester Labor-Religion Coalition.