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|May 29, 2003||
Vol. 1, No. 38
Work dignifies a person's life, or at least it should
Dennis Coday, NCR staff writer
Yesterday, I might have been a bit too flippant in talking about my job. I enjoy what I do and believe it is important. I have been very lucky in that since I began working I have found jobs that have given me an adequate income and that I have enjoyed. Others are not as lucky. And the numbers of the unlucky may be expanding.
Work dignifies a person's life, or at least it should. That is what our Catholic social teachings have maintained since Pope Leo XIII (1878 -1903). But much has changed since the turn of the 20th century when Leo wrote his encyclical, Rerum Novarum (On Capitol and Labor).
A couple weeks ago, I went with my brother to buy paint at a lumberyard, where we learned that paint companies are phasing out their metal cans and replacing them with plastic. I was impressed with the new jugs' easy pour spouts, but my brother muttered, "A can-making company has been put out of business. More jobs lost. Doesn't this country make anything any more?" His comment gave me pause.
Just a few days later, the Midwest, where we live, was whipped and thrashed by several days of severe weather and tornados. I happened to hear a radio news report about a town in Tennessee that was devastated. A factory, a major local employer, that made Pringles brand potato chips was destroyed. Loss of the plant would have severe consequences. But the news report added that the implications were even more widespread. With no potato chips to package, a factory that makes the Pringles cans would also close. My brother's words echoed in my ears, "Another can factory closed."
These two incidents made me stop and think. What does the typical American do for work? Once it seemed that people's primary occupation was making things. While my dad was a small business owner and retailer, my uncles worked in factories. They made things, and they derived satisfaction from their daily labors. Increasingly, though, manufacturing seems to be niche employer. U.S. Labor Department statistics bear this out.
Two million jobs have been lost in the last two and a half years. Manufacturing job losses totaled 95,000 in April (the latest figures available), more than twice the average monthly decline for the prior 12 months. Motor vehicles and equipment makers were the biggest losers: 150,000 jobs since June 2000. But job declines in lumber, furniture, fabricated metals, textiles, apparel and paper manufacturing also exceeded their 12-month averages. Employment in electronic and electrical equipment has been in continual decline.
You can probably guess the sectors that saw job increases: services, such as legal, engineering and management, agricultural, and health. Now, these kinds of jobs can be highly skilled, intellectually engaging and satisfying, but not always secure. Much of this type of service work is part time or contact. Anyone ever employed on a contract or project basis knows, you're only as good as your last job delivered, and when one ends, you've got to find another.
This trend is worrying in our modern society. In fact, the bishops of Quebec, Canada, dedicated their annual Labor Day (celebrated May 1 nearly everywhere in the world except the United States) message to the topic. The Quebec bishops said a drop in the province's and Canada's unemployment rates was due to the creation of more part-time jobs and the proliferation of short-term contracts, a worrying source of job insecurity. The trend has a destabilizing impact on society, they said.
Recalling the history of church teaching on work since Leo XIII, I am left pondering what the church's thoughts on work are for today. Does the church in the 21st century have a theology of work?
Here's a challenge to you readers. What Catholic philosophers or theologians are working on this question? If you know of anyone exploring these ideas, I would like to hear about them or, better yet, from them. Send me your ideas. My email address is firstname.lastname@example.org.
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