In Labor Day Memo, Bishop Says Catholic Social Teaching Holds Key to a Just Economy
Florida Bishop Frank Dewane called on Catholics to turn to ‘the treasury of the Church’s social teaching’ to consider new ways to promote justice for workers.
WASHINGTON — The head of the U.S. bishops’ Committee on Domestic Justice and Human Development called on Catholics to reflect this Labor Day on Catholic Social Teaching and its implications for building a more just economy.
In the Christian view, “workers and owners both have rights and duties towards each other; a business enterprise must view itself as a ‘society of persons’ rather than a mere commercial instrument,” said Bishop Frank Dewane of Venice, Florida, in a statement dated Sept. 2.
The bishop called for an economy that values the human person and the dignity of work over the profit and capital. He emphasized that Catholic social teaching does not hold a “just wage” to be merely synonymous with a free market wage.
“Today’s economy, if measured by the stock market, has the most money and wealth it has ever had, and unemployment is around the lowest it has been in fifty years,” he said.
“And yet, roughly four in ten Americans cannot afford an unexpected $400 bill, and would fall below the poverty line after three months without income,” Bishop Dewane said. “More than one in five jobs in the United States is in a low-wage occupation where the median wage pays below the poverty threshold for a family of four. Real wages have been largely stagnant for decades, and workers’ share of the fruits of the economy has been declining for decades.”
Bishop Dewane reflected in his Labor Day message on the “Bishops’ Program for Social Reconstruction,” released 100 years ago by the body of U.S. bishops that preceded the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops.
Many of the considerations in the bishops’ program, raised shortly after World War I, are still valid today, the bishop said.
The Bishops’ Program of 1919 voiced serious concern about monopolies, highlighting the principle of solidarity and stressing the state’s authority to step in when monopolies interfere with healthy development.
“New research suggests that anticompetitive behavior from employers has resulted in lower wages in many labor markets, particularly for lower wage workers,” Bishop Dewane said.
“In theory, low unemployment should raise wages, but recent research suggests that this may be offset by the increasing concentration of employers — in other words, fewer numbers of employers are employing larger shares of the labor force, giving employers greater power to keep wages down.”
Countering these trends will require a cooperative effort, the bishop said. State and federal government should act to prevent anticompetitive behavior that leads to lower wages, and unions should track and report such behavior. Business leaders consider workers when making merger decisions.
As an alternative to monopolies, Bishop Dewane pointed to employee ownership as a positive model, in which workers can access the fruits of the companies they work for and participate in management.
“Recent research has shown the great benefits of employee ownership to workers, including higher wages than otherwise comparable firms, more stable employment, more job training opportunities, opportunities to participate more in firm decision-making, better benefits, and much more wealth over the course of one’s career (this holds true for low- and moderate-income workers as well),” he said. “The advantages of worker ownership are especially pronounced for young people, women, and people of color.”
Models of employee ownership include employee stock ownership plans and cooperative enterprises, the bishop said, pointed to the latter as being “expressly favored in the Church’s teaching.”
Lawmakers should consider tax incentives to encourage greater levels of worker ownership, Bishop Dewane said, and business owners should consider this model for the good of their employees. Consumers can also support companies that use employee ownership models, and they can support the Catholic Campaign for Human Development, which helps workers achieve employee ownership.
The bishop also praised unions as a means for workers “to negotiate for just wages, benefits, and working conditions, and to look after the rights of vulnerable workers, including those with injuries and disabilities.” He noted the vocal support of unions by Pope Leo XIII and his successors.
Ultimately, Bishop Dewane said, “no merely technocratic policy changes will bear the fruit that is so desperately needed today.”
He called on Catholics to turn to “the treasury of the Church’s social teaching” to consider new ways to promote justice for workers.