Random thoughts about labor

2-PaperRagRoom1“In any case we clearly see, and on this there is general agreement, that some opportune remedy must be found quickly for the misery and wretchedness pressing so unjustly on the majority of the working class: for the ancient workingmen’s guilds were abolished in the last century, and no other protective organization took their place. Public institutions and the laws set aside the ancient religion. Hence, by degrees it has come to pass that working men have been surrendered, isolated and helpless, to the hardheartedness of employers and the greed of unchecked competition. The mischief has been increased by rapacious usury, which, although more than once condemned by the Church, is nevertheless, under a different guise, but with like injustice, still practiced by covetous and grasping men. To this must be added that the hiring of labor and the conduct of trade are concentrated in the hands of comparatively few; so that a small number of very rich men have been able to lay upon the teeming masses of the laboring poor a yoke little better than that of slavery itself.”

These words come from the papal encyclical, Rerum Novarum, promulgated by Pope Leo XIII in 1891. The emphasis on that last sentence is mine. Here we are, 122 years later and things are not so different. As is often said, the more things change, the more they stay the same. By the way, Pope Leo XIII was no firebrand, but he understood this element of justice very well. One hundred years later,  Blessed John Paul II issued the encyclical, Centesiumus Annus, which revisited Rerum Novarum, and updated some of the thoughts. Both documents are worth your time and effort.


BelieveStrangely enough, one of the most powerful statements that I ever heard about the dignity of the worker came from… Cher. Yes – that Cher. Somewhere around 1986 or so, I was watching an interview in which Cher spoke about the loss of dignity of workers and the shame of being poor in a society so bent on improvement. So many years later, I cannot recall her exact words, but I remember snapping to attention when I heard them. It caused me to recall something a college friend had once said, something that his dad had told him, which was basically, “Even if you are a toilet cleaner, be the best ****ing toilet cleaner you can be. Do it well and with pride.


In our culture, which often elevates successful (read: financially) work to religion, we seem to have sacrificed success for financial success. Not that that ends up mattering in the bad game of musical chairs.  Workers, even financially successful ones, often go to work worried. “Will this be the day?” they wonder.

focus_361055kWorkers in retail and fast food labor under difficult circumstances and wonder the same thing. Due to what would be called “zero hour contracts” in the UK, where many labor on an “on call” basis, jobs can be lost if you are not at the beck and call of the employer. All without any assurance of any hours in the first place.  I don’t think we have a name like zero hour here in the US; we just call it work.


One of my unemployment “jobs” was some consulting work with a Very Big Outplacement Firm.  As a beneficiary of this very outplacement firm myself, I caught the eye of the person who ran the office. This was in 2008, deep in the heart of “you are screwed” country, the year it all fell apart. I did not see myself in dire straits, but I was not complacent either. Having spent a good deal of time and money on getting certified as a personal and corporate coach, her request to have me come on board to consult was welcomed by me.

That was until I began the work itself. *shudders* I spent time getting trained in the spring of 2008, and by summer I was ready to roll. The work was like nothing I had ever done before, and not in a good way.  On one hand, it seemed a corporal work of mercy to go into countless conference rooms to cheer and cajole the recently terminated, and to help them write their resumes and cover letters, and work on interviewing skills. On the other hand, it was like being in partnership with evil, because while their employer paid for this service, no one really seemed to care about the soon to be unemployed. I always thought that the outplacement assuaged the consciences, such as they were, of the employers. Who knows, maybe I am cynical.

This thought was made more real when I saw the movie Up in the Air with George Clooney in 2009. You will recall that he actually flew around the country working for a similar concern, but he got to do the actual firing. Violence without weapons, as companies madly downsized to beat the band.

PlanningRightsizingIt was around this time that the term “rightsizing” made its way into the vernacular. Talk about bloodless violence. How cheery – rightsizing, a term made for the one who was “righting,” and not for the “wronged.” Seeing the movie made me grateful that for whatever reason, Very Big Outplacement Firm seemed to have little work for me, despite the increased layoffs of the era.


Here we find a new limit on the market: there are collective and qualitative needs which cannot be satisfied by market mechanisms. There are important human needs which escape its logic. There are goods which by their very nature cannot and must not be bought or sold. Certainly the mechanisms of the market offer secure advantages: they help to utilize resources better; they promote the exchange of products; above all they give central place to the person’s desires and preferences, which, in a contract, meet the desires and preferences of another person. Nevertheless, these mechanisms carry the risk of an “idolatry” of the market, an idolatry which ignores the existence of goods which by their nature are not and cannot be mere commodities.

That’s Blessed John Paul II, from the previously mentioned, Centesimus Annus.  His words regarding the “idolatry of the market” are worth noting at a time when business seems to hold more sway than individuals.


So what is my point today? I’m not sure that I have one other than the idea that there cannot be justice without balance. This is not a new thought, is it?

lady-liberty-scales-of-justice-h-1000Whatever your thoughts are this Labor Day, maybe you can do this one thing. Try to see whoever seems like the “enemy” to you – management, the business owner,  the government, the union, or the workers themselves – in a different light today. Put on your justice blindfold and get out the scale. Maybe what you “weigh in” with will surprise you. Or at the very least, maybe we will all be invited to open our hearts and our minds as we go forth.

And when you go out on Labor Day, whether to the grocery store, the movies, or wherever, please thank the people who gave up their holiday as you enjoyed your own.