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October 8th, 2013

Stop Throwing Away Low-Wage Workers

Pope Francis weighs in on workers’ dignity and the global economy

 
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Pope Francis wears a hard hat he received from a miner during Mass the outside Shrine of Our Lady of Bonaria in Sardinia. (CNS photo/L'Osservatore Romano via Reuters)

Pope Francis wears a hard hat he received from a miner during Mass the outside Shrine of Our Lady of Bonaria in Sardinia. (CNS photo/L’Osservatore Romano via Reuters)

Many advocates for economic justice were struck by Pope Francis’ candid remarks last month about our global economic system and the “idol” of money.

The pope’s impromptu comments came after a meeting with unemployed workers in Cagliari, Sardinia (an island off the coast of Italy), who shared their stories of struggle. Francis discarded his prepared speech and let the Spirit lead his remarks for nearly 20 minutes.

“It is not a problem of Italy and Europe,” he said of an economic system that marginalizes the poor and vulnerable. “It is the consequence of a world choice, of an economic system that brings about this tragedy, an economic system that has at its center an idol which is called money.”

Francis’ remarks were a solemn reminder that our current economic system does not reflect our values as Christians. All God’s children deserve work, and to work with dignity. We deserve to be compensated fairly for an honest day’s work. Work should provide the means for a roof over our head and food on our table.

“Throwaway culture”

We are witness to a great shift in employment practices here in the United States. The wealthy prey on the poor and unemployed. According to a 2012 study from the National Employment Law Project, in the Great Recession, 60 percent of the jobs that disappeared were good middle-class jobs; 21 percent were low-wage jobs. Now, in the recovery, 58 percent of the jobs created have been low-wage jobs, where workers are treated as cogs, not people. (Middle-class jobs account for less than a quarter of those created.)
These employment norms are rooted in the same “throwaway culture” Pope Francis has criticized:

“A throwaway culture has been installed. We throw away grandparents, and we throw away young people. We have to say ‘no’ to this throwaway culture. We want a just system that helps everyone.”

We must resolve to stop throwing away low-wage workers. We need to create jobs that make all work just. As Christians we are called to work toward an economy that lifts up God’s people.

“We don’t want this globalized economic system, which does us so much harm,” Francis said, underscoring that people, rather than money, should be at the center of the economic system.

Listening to the poor in our communities

Just as Pope Francis listened to the stories of unemployed workers in Cagliari living under the shadow of the great wealth of a few, Catholics and people of faith have the opportunity to follow his lead and listen to those living in poverty in our own communities.

Right here in the United States, Wal-Mart workers are preparing for a big day of action November 29, Black Friday (the day after Thanksgiving). Wal-Mart workers in our communities face some of the same daily concerns the Sardinians highlighted for Pope Francis. They are often forced to choose between paying rent and eating dinner. They are paid poverty wages and work unpredictable schedules, impeding their ability to pick up a second job for supplemental income. When they speak up, management responds with retaliation and intimidation.

Just as Pope Francis listened to the stories of unemployed workers in Cagliari living under the shadow of the great wealth of a few, Catholics and people of faith have the opportunity to follow his lead and listen to those living in poverty in our own communities.

These workers are standing up for a voice and respect on the job, not to mention a paycheck that lifts them out of poverty. At Interfaith Worker Justice, we are connecting parishes, congregations and local organizations to Wal-Mart workers living in their communities.

I can understand why the Spirit called Pope Francis to abandon his prepared remarks and speak from the heart about the economy. Last June, I joined more than 100 workers who bravely walked off their jobs and headed to Bentonville, Arkansas, to join executives and shareholders at Wal-Mart’s annual meeting. These workers testified about poor pay and working conditions. They asked executives to change the “throwaway culture” of its own stores across the country.

During the month of October, we have the opportunity to engage in dialogue with brave workers like Carlton. Carlton, a former Wal-Mart worker from Southern California, told me “Wal-Mart’s ‘open door’ policy is broken.” It claims its policy allows associates to bring suggestions or concerns about workers or the company to any manager without fear of retaliation. Carlton was fired after speaking out to his manager about his problems with Wal-Mart.

“Where there is no work, there is no dignity,” Francis said to the workers in Cagliari — and to all of us. But it’s important to remember that where there is work rooted in exploitation, intimidation and quarterly profits, it is also hard to find dignity.

Pope Francis asked God to “give us work and teach us to fight for work.” Let us ask God to also give us good jobs and fight for an economic system that is focused on people.

I invite you to join us this month as we listen to brave Wal-Mart workers tell their stories of struggle, survival and community building. Host a worker, be moved to follow the Spirit, and stand with workers for a better workplace, a better corporation and a better economy.

 
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The Author : Adam DeRose
Adam DeRose is the online organizer at Interfaith Worker Justice, a national non-profit working at the intersection of work and faith. Adam manages IWJ’s online content including their website, blog, email and new media communications.
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Please note that the editorial staff reserves the right to not post comments it deems to be inappropriate and/or malicious in nature, as well as edit comments for length, clarity and fairness.
  • Adam DeRose

    As the largest retail employer in our country, Walmart is an industry leader and a trailblazer in employment practices that minimize the value of workers. It’s important to recognize that as an industry leader, their poor employment practices are legitimized and then adopted by others corporations (even other low-wage industries such as fast food). I’ve suggested here an interpersonal dialogue with low-wage workers in your community such as the folks working in fast food restaurants and retail giants like Walmart. Those conversations can be transformational. As people of faith we need to always remember that we are first brothers and sisters in Christ, not simply costumers at stores or diners at fast food restaurants.

    Also, I encourage you to take a look at the National Employment Law Project’s July report debunking the “mobility” myth in the fast-food industry: http://bit.ly/1anTl4O

    • Robin Hazen

      Thank you for your work and your writing! The Dignity of Work and The Rights of Workers is a Catholic Social Justice issue that often gets swept under the rug for the sake of corporations. I really wish people would research what the Wal Mart way has done to our economy over the years . I will be researching your links and ways to help educate my parish community.

  • Sonja Flater

    Clearly, this is to promote Unions. Walmart is not the enemy. You’re just going after them because they are the largest retail employer. If you truly wanted to make retail work places change their policy, you would advocate a boycott of all shops the day after Thanksgiving. Thinking that you have to focus on one retailer to make your point, is actually, missing the point. You don’t have the support of the people. Recently, there was a “strike” of fast food workers to point out the low pay and hours, and people only criticized the workers for settling for unskilled labor and expecting to get paid a sustaining wage in what people considered transitional jobs. There was huge complaint about lack of proper service even then. You need the popular vote to accomplish anything along these lines. People feel like they have worked toward their incomes, and feel that people in low wage jobs haven’t worked hard enough to improve their circumstance. You aren’t gaining any sympathy for Walmart workers. Walmart isn’t doing anything different than every other retailer.

  • John Doe

    - Well done, to a point. Unfortunately my comments might be misinterpreted, but I’ll give it a go, regardless. I liked the whole thing up until you got a bit caught up in the WalMart specifics. I am not defending them – however I think it actually pulled away from the article. Pope, yes. Dignity, yes. Fair wage and fair work, yes. You head down a road with the Walmart commentary and it is at once too little and too much at the same time. 95% was a very good read, still. Thank you!

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