Bishops: Work must fulfill us
Wisconsin bishops' Labor Day statement backs common good
Wisconsin's Catholic bishops challenged Catholics and others in the state to assure that "all Wisconsin workers are able to work in ways that fulfill their potential, care for their families and contribute to the common good of society."
The Labor Day statement, "Making Wisconsin Work Well," was released by the Wisconsin Catholic Conference - the bishops' public policy voice.
The process began in spring 2000 with the naming of a task force chaired by Auxiliary Bp. Robert Morneau of Green Bay.
"As an activity vital to personal development, work is a matter of both personal responsibility and public concern," the bishops wrote. "For Catholics, our response must be both pastoral, by responding on a personal level to the needs and situations of individuals, and prophetic, by calling on our Wisconsin community to make structural changes that can make work more human for the people who perform it."
The bishops released the statement for the 20th anniversary of Pope John Paul's encyclical, Laborem Exercens (On Human Work), which affirms that work is at the center of social issues that affect justice and peace.
"Laborem Exercens anticipated many work-related issues facing us today and its message is very relevant to some of the important questions now before our state," the bishops explained.
The statement discusses work in the context of its relationship to human growth and development, stressing the importance of respecting the dignity of work.
"Although work is not the sole measure of our worth as human beings, it is important to affirm the dignity of every worker," they stressed. "Neither our self-image nor our image of others should be measured solely by career or job status. The custodian and the CEO enjoy the same measure of God's love and enjoy the same promise of eternal life. They deserve an equal measure of respect from us."
The bishops emphasized the need for a healthy balance of time for work, family life, leisure, and worship. Work arrangements, they said, need to be sensitive to parents.
They said a loss of "family values" in the last generation and other social ills traced to the weakening of the family has coincided with stagnating wages for many parents and an increase in the number of parents who found it necessary to spend more time at work.
"Too often this occurs because economic and social policies assign a greater value to a person's role as worker than that of parent," they wrote. "We are convinced that wars on crime, pornography, and violence - as important as they are - will not succeed if we as a society do not assign greater value to time spent with family than does the market."
The bishops called for just treatment of people who work for parishes and Catholic agencies.
"Many Catholics have responded to a vocation to work for the church in its various pastoral and social ministries. Every such person is a treasure whose gift of self has enriched the church," they said. "As a matter of justice, the church needs to recognize the economic realities of its own employees. It must take action to ensure that all of its employees are paid at levels that keep them above the designation of working poor."
Talented, motivated workers
The bishops cited the state's talented and motivated workforce, its rich natural resources, a diverse economy, and the state's legacy of progressive labor policies, as strengths. But they cited an increase in the ranks of the "working poor," the plight of family farms and farm workers, and higher jobless rates for minorities as reasons for concern.
The statement reaffirms the church's traditional support for labor unions, recalling that in Laborem Exercens Pope John Paul referred to unions as "an indispensable element of social life," and "a mouthpiece for the struggle for social justice" for members and nonunionized workers too.
The bishops also praised employers, saying they make a "special contribution to the community," whose "initiative and creativity inspires similar traits in others."
The statement cautions employers and unions to evaluate their actions on how they affect the larger common good, not just self-interest.
The statement addressed the needs of the working poor and assessed the progress of the Wisconsin Works program five years after the adoption of federal welfare reform. The bishops called W-2 "very much a work in progress" and urged citizens and policy makers alike to evaluate its future in light of the vision of work in Laborem Exercens.
Treat poor workers justly
The bishops recalled that a founding principle of the W-2 program is that the measure of how it treats needy families will be the manner in which public policy treats the working poor. Since welfare reform means that even those on public assistance must work, there is no longer a distinction between needy people who work and those who do not.
"Accordingly, it is even more important to insist that wages and other benefits available to the working poor meet basic tests of social justice. This is critical to the fundamental fairness, not only of W-2, but of our entire society," they claimed.
The bishops called for changes in a system in which high unemployment among African-Americans, Hispanic-Americans, and other people of color co-exists with their over-representation in the criminal justice system and in the W-2 program, despite a labor shortage.
"Policies that provide equal work opportunities for all, including educational reforms that will help enhance job prospects, are a moral imperative. At the same time, we should resist policies that disproportionately limit or deny job opportunities for minorities."
The bishops also said the pope's exhortation to welcome workers from other places as equals has special relevance to Wisconsin.
The complete statement is on the WCC web site: www.wisconsincatholic.com