2015

30 September 2015: Workers should be treated fairly

Workers should be treated fairly

One of my many life blessings is that of employment and regular income. I have gone through only one stretch in which I endured the ordeal of wondering how I would meet my bills. And that was only for about two months 40 years ago when I pulled up roots and moved to Colorado.

As brief a period as that was, the memory of it was seared into my consciousness. That in turn has been a guiding force in my life as a labor advocate for economic justice in these writings and other ways.

Last week I wrote about John Ewers getting his pink slip from Georgetown’s John Tomay Library. In that edition was also the news from the Henderson Mine that 70 employees are getting theirs for more understandable reasons, but still with the same outcome.  These come as the memory and the fallout of the Great Recession remain acute.

Despite the economic recovery, workers’ incomes have remained mired in the muck while the top one percent keeps seeing their wealth amass exponentially. During his recent pastoral visit to the U.S., Pope Francis addressed the topic of income inequality and economic justice.

His inclusion of Dorothy Day and the Reverend Martin Luther King, Jr. as two of the “four great Americans” in his speech to congress was telling. In so doing, His Holiness unequivocally made clear where he stands with regard to economic justice.

Day dedicated her life to a variety of causes, including women’s rights and pacifism, from World War I to the election of Ronald Reagan. But her work on behalf of workers was perhaps her most significant contribution to bettering the plight of the common person. During the Great Depression she co-founded the Catholic Worker, a newspaper that advocated the social gospel.

King’s work on behalf of workers’ rights is often overlooked given his role in the civil rights movement. But it must be remembered his last days were spent supporting the striking sanitation workers in Memphis, TN.
On April 3, 1968 he delivered his “I’ve been to the mountaintop speech. In it he said, “Let us rise up tonight with a greater readiness. Let us stand with a greater determination. And let us move on in these powerful days, these days of challenge to make America what it ought to be. We have an opportunity to make America a better nation.”
In that speech, King spoke as if he knew his time was short. “What would happen to me from some of our sick white brothers?” he asked. He knew “the threats were out” in Memphis.

“Well, I don’t know what will happen now,” he wondered. “We’ve got some difficult days ahead. But it really doesn’t matter with me now, because I’ve been to the mountaintop.”
The next day he was assassinated.
Nearly five decades later, the struggle for workers’ rights continues. The debate about raising the minimum wage has become one of the main issues in the presidential race.

I find it more than cheeky for candidates who rank in that top 0.0001 who gained much of their notoriety by firing people to pontificate on the plight of workers.

All too often wealth helps not only to isolate the tin-eared ones from consorting with the plebeians but also to disconnect them empathetically from those struggling. Financial stability for those who really need not fear loss is taken for granted with the result too often they develop a cavalier and attitude and callous disregard towards those suffering.

Those born into privileged situations in which they never experience pangs of hunger, wear tattered clothing, or live in marginal and sub-standard housing, must work to touch those who haven’t. In Buddhism, it’s empathy and compassion. In Christianity, it’s the social gospel, the core of Jesus’s teachings.

To that end, I wonder what Day and King would be saying and doing if they were alive today. On that we can only assume, but we know what the Holy Father had to say: “Let us treat others with the same passion and compassion with which we want to be treated.”

Amen to that.

Francis has challenged us. Will we listen to our higher angels? If we do, we can make America a better nation.

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