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Catholic call to labor justice

Observer Viewpoint | Wednesday, April 20, 2005

In his 1991 encyclical “The Hundredth Year,” Pope John Paul II wrote, “As far as the church is concerned, the social message of the Gospel must not be considered a theory, but above all a basis and a motivation for action. Today more than ever, the church is aware that her social message will gain credibility more immediately from the witness of actions than as a result of its internal logic and consistency.” The need to take our faith into the world, our teachings into our communities and our passions into our lives is one of many legacies we ought to heed as we mourn and remember the late pontiff. While examples of Christian social work and service are many, these stories go often unnoticed and uncelebrated. Last month, one such group of committed followers took their beliefs in justice and faith into their community and made history.

For three years, students at Georgetown University organized alongside staff and faculty to have their administration adopt a living wage policy. The Georgetown University Living Wage Coalition researched working conditions for service and support staff and found the wages did not support an adequate standard of living. The university paid its direct staff an average of ten dollars an hour, while workers from subcontractors earned seven to eight dollars an hour. All these figures fell below the living wage floor – hourly wage calculated to support a family of four to cover living expenses including housing, food, childcare and transportation. Washington D.C. think tanks estimated the city’s living wage floor at least 11 to 12 dollars per hour. Beyond low wages, many Georgetown employees worked multiple jobs – combinations of full and part time – leaving little to no time for their families or other activities like school or English as Second Language instruction.

Student organizers recognized the need for a change in this situation. Georgetown – as a Jesuit Catholic institution committed to social justice and ethical teachings ought to have an employment policy that reflects those values. As Pope John Paul II and others proclaimed, our teachings, Gospels and beliefs must only be a starting point for a life and faith that does justice. If we believe and strive to being about the kingdom of God on earth, we must be in constant engagement with social issues. Also, we must recognize and uplift the dignity of all people, especially the poor and marginalized. Whether we recognize it or not, our lives are bound together though a web of relationships. At Georgetown, student organizers saw the work of service employees as foundational to their ability to live and study at the university. They did not take for granted clean dorms, accessible meals in the dining halls and orderly classrooms each day. They put a face to that vital work.

The Living Wage Coalition found a wealth of moral teachings on labor justice from papal encyclicals and other religious interpretation texts. The Catholic Church has a rich tradition of speaking out for the rights of workers to just wages, the right to organize and humane working conditions. From Pope Leo XIII to Pope John Paul II, church leaders have spoken for worker justice. In the encyclical “On Human Work,” John Paul II wrote, “The justice of a social and economic system is finally measured by the way in which a person’s work is rewarded. According to the principle of the common use of goods, it is through the remuneration for work that in any system most people have access to these goods, both the goods of nature and those manufactured. A just wage is a concrete measure – and in a sense the key one – of the justice of a system.” Along with using moral teaching in their speech, student organizers integrated principles into their action. In March, over 25 students went on an indefinite hunger strike to support their campaign for just wages for Georgetown workers. Their nine-day expression of solidarity and active love for others compelled their university to adopt a Just Employment Policy. Now Georgetown University will ensure that service employees make at least 13 dollars per hour starting in July. Additionally by 2008, employees will make at least 14 dollars per hour and yearly pay increases based on rises in the cost of living.

For those who follow Catholicism, there is much to do to be good neighbors and stewards of creation. I find hope in the community of people of faith formed during times of trial and celebration. The students at Georgetown serve us as a model of a faith that does justice and a community engaged in the problems of the world. Let us salute their victory and heed their example in our own community. The call to love is up most for our faith-based community and is only made real and valuable by working for justice, especially for those who are poor and struggling in this difficult world.

Kamaria Porter is a junior history major. her column appears every other Wednesday. Contact her at kporter@nd.edu.

The views expressed in this column are those of the author and not necessarily those of The Observer.