The Dignity of Work
With Labor Day just behind us and a year of school work ahead, it seems an ideal time to talk about the dignity of work. The Catholic Church has long been a partner in the labor struggle for just wages and decent, safe working conditions. The celebration of Labor Day began in 1882; the first encyclical addressing work and workers, Rerum Novarum, appeared in 1891. Catholic social teaching addresses several concerns regarding the dignity of work and the rights of workers including the right to productive work, just wages, the right to unionize, and the right to economic initiative. Workers are co-creators with God as our work has meaning beyond our own individual needs, and we all have an obligation to work for the common good in building a better world.
A root concern in Catholic social teaching is that persons remain the subject of their work and that the job not rule the person. (See Pope John Paul II’s Laborem Exercens) The meaning of the dignity of work is found within the person, not in the job itself. Yet in spite of the many labor movements throughout the world including the United States, we have not achieved our goals. People do become slaves to their jobs. Too many people are without work of any kind and many work at jobs that cannot support them much less their families. In many cases, one or both parents must work two jobs to support the family; in some families the teenaged children must also go to work to help the family meet basic needs such as food and shelter. For some workers, the price of working comes high as they labor in unsafe, unjust conditions at wages barely meeting minimum wage or minimum wages that cannot sustain a family. Immigrants face additional barriers to finding jobs where they receive fair treatment and just wages and are often exploited by their employers.
Work can provide fair wages, a way to support family life and build up community. It can be a source of joy and spiritual fulfillment. Yet workers in all fields and of all ages speak of experiencing burnout and/or a lack of meaning in their lives. It can be for the common good or become skewed by greed or other idolatries. We have learned to separate our work and our spirituality in our culture at a great cost often resulting in depression, burnout, apathy and lack of creativity on the job. Finding the spiritual roots of our role as workers and co-creators through our prayer life lifts us up and helps protect us against false gods of competitiveness, greed, consumerism etc.
Students and teachers work together in the classroom and therefore the dignity of work and the rights of workers make an ideal classroom discussion topic. Use the guidelines below or prepare your own discussion starter points. Affirm your students’ dignity as workers laboring in your classroom this school year as you labor alongside them!
http://ccctx.org/fc_cst_work.php Catholic Charities of Central Texas lists scripture passages that form the basis for the value of the dignity of work.
Does the dignity of work only impact one worker at a time or does it ripple out into the workforce, home life and the community at large?
What is the relationship between leisure and the value of dignity of work? Is leisure the same as entertainment?
Can you imagine a situation where a worker might be too tired to enjoy leisure time?
Are vacation policies uniform in this country? In other countries? Compare the vacation policies of a country such as the Netherlands with that of the United States. Or compare the vacation policies in a third world country with our understanding of vacation.
Should part time help be guaranteed vacation time or do only fulltime employees qualify?
Should workers receive vacation pay?
If a worker cannot “afford” leisure time either in monetary terms or in terms of job security, what effect does this have on the family?
How are insurance benefits and pensions related to the dignity of work?
Is overtime a good or bad thing? What does forced overtime do to workers over a period of time and to their families?
Do employers or business founders have an obligation to the community? What is the relationship between business and human progress? Does it go beyond technology and/or dollars?
Does the “value” of work go beyond its economic value? Examples?
Who are the workers that keep a school going?
Are students “workers?” How does their work as students contribute to an understanding of their own human dignity?
What are students’ rights in terms of their schoolwork?
Do all students in the United States have fair and equal working conditions?
Write a declaration of the working rights of students. Write one for teachers.
Do the rights just apply to school or should there be a discussion of student working
conditions in the home and community as well such as a quiet place to study, access to a library?
Films and books often address the labor movement and working conditions. Two from the past that touch upon historical aspects of the labor movement are the film On the Waterfront and the book The Jungle. Which contemporary films and books address the dignity of work and workers’ rights?
How can we link our spiritual life with our work? Give examples of how students and teachers might deepen the spirituality of their work.
Rerum Novarum Pope Leo XIII’s 1891 encyclical on labor http://www.vatican.va/holy_father/leo_xiii/encyclicals/documents/hf_l-xiii_enc_15051891_rerum-novarum_en.html
Guadium Et Specs the Church in the Modern World Vatican II document stresses role of co-workers with God and fleshes out our search for meaning among many other points
Populorum Progressio Pope Paul VI offers some discussion on nobility of work http://www.vatican.va/holy_father/paul_vi/encyclicals/documents/hf_p-vi_enc_26031967_populorum_en.html
Laborum Exercens. John Paul II revisits issues relating to ‘work’ on 90 th anniversary of Rerum Novarum including labor conflict, co-creation, relation of work to human dignity, etc.
Centesimus Annus on the 100 th anniversary of Rerum Novarum Pope John Paul II speaks of the ‘vital energies’ of the original document lending understanding of Catholic social teaching as a ‘living’ body of work to be studied and applied throughout the ages in response to the signs of the times and a growing understanding of the human condition. http://www.vatican.va/holy_father/john_paul_ii/encyclicals/documents/hf_jp-ii_enc_01051991_centesimus-annus_en.html
A Catholic Framework for Economic Life United States Bishops offer a nice summary of Catholic social teaching regarding work and workers. http://www.usccb.org/sdwp/international/ACatholicFrameworkforEconomicLife.pdf
A Time to Remember; A Time to Recommit United States Catholic Bishops 2007 Labor Day statement http://www.usccb.org/sdwp/Labor%20Day%202007.pdf
http://www.americancatholic.org/Messenger/Sep2003/Family.asp Susan Hines-Brigger gives an overview of the dignity of work using examples with which teens can easily relate.
http://www.un.org/Overview/rights.html Article 23 of the U.N. document addresses work issues, Article 24 links the “right to rest and leisure” with “ reasonable limitation of working hours”
http://salt.claretianpubs.org/cstline/tline2.html U.S. Catholic’s Busy Christian’s Guide offers summaries of several major documents of Catholic Social Teaching
http://www.paxjoliet.org/relatedorgs.htm#workers Under “table of contents” click on “workers’ rights” on this Joliet Diocese Peace and Social Justice Website page.
Creator God, be present in our studies at school and at home. Guide us in all our learning and in applying our studies to life in our homes and in our communities. Help us to recognize the dignity of all workers including our classmates and teachers and to take responsibility for co-creating with you as we strive to build up a better community and a better world. Amen
May God bless you and your students, may your classroom uphold the dignity of each student and teacher who labors there and may your days be filled with meaning, faith, and hope throughout the school year. Blessings, Colette Wisnewski
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JUSTeach ARCHIVE August 2001 - May 2007
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