by Pam Demasi, Liberty Missouri Companion
My father was part of the Greatest Generation. He worked at the Ford Plant in Claycomo, Missouri, for many years, originally as a union member. After World War ii, the Catholic Church and government focused on needs of workers in social action and social change. Labor unions and labor leaders and rank and file members worked with labor-management for better relations, pay and benefits. Urban laborers became an organized, disciplined, productive and relatively well-paid working class. By the time I started to work for Hallmark Cards in 1971 at $1.71 an hour with benefits, our expanding population had the United States going outside of our borders for raw materials, food, and laborers. This led to tensions as we stripped countries in our own hemisphere of the ability to sustain themselves, and their people began to migrate to the U.S. for work. In the late 70s and the 80s, many companies began to see a way to cut their labor cost by moving production facilities to countries with lower wages, such as China, India, and Brazil.
Many of the firms formed in the old cities abandoned them. Kansas City, like so many other cities in the U.S., declined for decades, at tragic human and economic cost. Loss of jobs, incomes, benefits, and public services shaped individual lives as workers descended from higher paying production jobs to lower paid, largely service-sector jobs. The gap between rich and poor—between those whose incomes depend chiefly on profits and those who depend chiefly on wage work—widened.
In Economic Justice for All: Catholic Social Teaching and the U.S Economy, the U.S. Bishops addressed the social, economic and political issues confronting the nation in 1986. The reality that overcoming poverty is a key element in social justice was articulated then. More recently, Pope Francis wrote in The Joy of the Gospel, “As long as the problems of the poor are not radically resolved by rejecting the absolute autonomy of markets and financial speculation and by attacking the structural causes of inequality, no solution will be found for the world problems or, for that matter, to any problems”(202). Nelson Mandela said at Trafalgar Square in 2005, “Like Slavery and Apartheid, poverty is not natural. It is man-made and it can be overcome and eradicated by the actions of human beings…. Overcoming poverty is not a task of charity; it is an act of justice…. Sometimes it falls on a generation to be great. You can be that great generation. Let your greatness blossom.”
Two-thirds of minimum wage workers in this country are women. In forty percent of families with children 18 or under, a woman is either a sole or primary breadwinner. Despite the gains women have made in the workplace, the median earnings of women working full time are only 77 percent of the median earnings for men in similar roles. My 20 year-old granddaughter works full time as a server at a major restaurant chain at minimum wage with no benefits.
One should be able to support a family working 40 hours per week. Someone working 60 hours in a fast-food restaurant does not have time to spend with family. Until workers were able to bargain collectively, reasonable pay with benefits for reasonable hours did not exist. Catholic Social Teaching states workers have the right to organize and seek justice in their workplaces, and unions seem to be important in minimizing poverty. The Cry of the Blood calls us to embrace the dignity of workers.